To My Parents, John Lennon and Madonna

The editing question I get more often than any other is about the Oxford—or serial—comma. No, this is not the Ted Bundy of punctuation. It’s the comma that precedes the word “and” in a list, as shown in this sentence: What do the Boston Strangler, Hannibal Lecter, and Jack the Ripper have in common?

The serial comma, like most punctuation, can be a grammatical lifesaver. Imagine this book dedication, sans serial comma: To my parents, John Lennon and Madonna. Is this a case of “Imagine” (no possessions) meeting the “Material Girl,” or has a serial comma gone missing? “Help!”

Using a serial comma in a sentence-style list is the favored construction in American English. One notable exception is in the press. Newspapers and other media outlets surely save gobs of ink, newsprint, and pixels by eliminating all those pesky commas. But for the rest of us, while the serial comma is not always needed to achieve an unmistakable meaning, its consistent use is generally helpful and always correct.

Ellen Horowitz

Ellen Horowitz draws on a rich tapestry of experience that includes science, history, and biographical editing; exhibit development, script writing, and design; and museum and historic preservation services. Her unique background and meticulous editing skills provide clear and accessible communication for both specialized and general audiences. Ellen can be reached at LinkedIn or [email protected].

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39 comments on “To My Parents, John Lennon and Madonna

  1. That was just super and perfectly succinct, Ellen! If only … about John Lennon and Madonna … 😉

    • Ooo! And you’re a newspaper guy. Thanks, Marty! Looking forward to when our paths cross again. 🙂

  2. That was terrific. Fun title. I caused a certain amount of stir when I wanted to add an Oxford Comma to the title of a UN policy. Adding the comma was perceived as colonialist (maybe the name should be changed from Oxford to Serial?)

    • That’s funny, Carol! I’ve read that the Oxford comma isn’t all that popular in England, so maybe the UN should rethink its stance. 🙂
      I’m glad you enjoyed this.

  3. …then there is the famous (koala bear?) (hungry murderer?) who “Eats Shoots and Leaves”…

        • You are justified, Susan, in appreciating that comma. But I will admit to liking the more relaxed trend in informal email and text salutations (e.g., “Hi Susan!”). In this regard, I believe that CMOS does, in fact, speak for moms everywhere. 🙂

          • I love that CMOS acknowledges this comma in formal writing, and I’ve also joined the relaxed trend, but will keep using it from time to time to make sure it doesn’t go extinct!

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