Serial Comma Reprise

After explaining about the Harvard Comma in my last Tip of the Day, I got a question from the Peanut Gallery. Aaron from Doha, Qatar, wrote:

“I always learned that if you had more than three items, the comma before ‘and’ is a must, and if only three items then it is optional.
Is this an incorrect teaching?”

I did a little more research, and the Rule of Thumb for omitting the serial comma before “and” goes like this:
The serial comma is unnecessary in a simple list of three items.
The classic example used is: red, white and blue.

By simple, the Rulemakers mean single words, not expressions or clauses. If there is any doubt, definitely include the comma.

Doubtful Example:
He will need a letter of recommendation from his bosses, Joe and Bob. (no serial comma)
He will need a letter of recommendation from his bosses, Joe, and Bob. (serial comma included)

Are Joe and Bob his bosses, or are they two other guys? Without the comma one would surmise that Joe and Bob are the bosses, but with the comma, it would be understood that they are two other guys.

How about this one:
I’m having lunch with my parents, the teacher and the preacher.

Is one of my parents a teacher while the other is a preacher? No comma.

Or am I having lunch with all four of them? If the latter is true, then use the comma after “teacher.”

And in any list longer than three, it makes good sense to use the serial comma because it gives the eye an extra and consistent item separator.

I prefer to use bullets if the list is longer than three, because even with the Harvard comma, it all runs together. The items get more individual consideration with bullets – if you have the space on the page, that is.

Profound Quote of the Day with No Serial Comma:
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
– Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, scientist and publisher, 1706-1790


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