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Commas are used in lists to separate the items.
I chose the colours of the flowers for the wedding: red, pink and white.
Simple! What could possibly go wrong?
The Oxford comma
The Oxford comma is the one slipped in before the ‘and’ at the end of a list.
I chose the colours of the flowers for the wedding: red, pink, and white.
Nine times our of ten, it’s not needed. There is no ambiguity if it’s left out. So why put it in, ever?
There are occasions when to leave the Oxford comma out risks confusion or misinformation.
I adore my parents, Elvis Presley and Virginia Woolf.
Without the Oxford comma, for a second you might think my parents are Elvis Presley and Virginia Woolf.
With the Oxford comma, it’s crystal clear – they are not my parents. I adore them all.
I adore my parents, Elvis Presley, and Virginia Woolf.
Publishers can decide – it’s a stylistic decision – to include or exclude the Oxford comma throughout a manuscript. As you can see from the example above, my advice would be to consistently include it.
Lists of phrases which include commas
If the items in the list are phrases rather than single words – and these phrases need commas – you might need to use semicolons to separate the list items.
I chose the flowers for the wedding: a bouquet of red roses and white gerbers for the bride; posies of pale pink roses for the bridesmaids; pink corsages for the mothers; and white buttonholes for the groom and ushers.
Lists so long that they become unintelligible
Once a list gets so long, the reader can’t remember what was at the start … an alternative solution is needed. And that is to use a bullet list, for which special punctuation rules apply. This is covered in a later lesson.