Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Serial comma

Question:

What is a serial comma and how do I use it?

Answer:

Serial commas punctuate a series of elements (words, phrases or clauses). Problems with serial commas sometimes arise when it comes time to punctuate the final elements in a list. For example:

  • Samira is lovely, tall and lean.
  • Samira is lovely, tall, and lean.

While a comma before the final and is optional, a comma can alter the meaning. The first example can be read as meaning "Samira is lovely because she is tall and lean," or it can be interpreted to mean "Samira is lovely and tall and lean." The second example with a comma before and makes the meaning clear.

When meaning is clear, the comma before the final and or or may be omitted, as in the following examples:

  • the good, the bad and the ugly
  • economists, sociologists or political scientists
  • Nathan took a radio, a hair dryer, the latest Vanity Fair and a canister of pepper spray on his first wilderness camping trip.

If there are a number of items in a list and omitting the final comma could result in confusion or a lack of clarity, opt for a comma. For example:

  • Eileen's favourite sandwiches are tuna, watercress, ham, and cheese and bacon.

The final comma indicates that a cheese and bacon sandwich is what Eileen likes to eat. If we remove the last comma, the reader may infer that one of Eileen's favourite foods is a ham and cheese and bacon sandwich.