Martha, Oprah, and the serial comma

Q: In a phrase like “Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and others,” is a comma required before the “and”? In classic literature I rarely see the comma but in modern literature a comma is often included.

A: When listing items in a series, a final comma before “and” is not required. But many people (we’re among them) like to use it anyway.

Pat discusses this in the new third edition of her grammar book Woe Is I. Here’s a two-paragraph excerpt:

“Use commas to separate a series of things or actions. She packed a toothbrush, a hair dryer, her swimsuit, and her teddy bear. She finished packing, paid some bills, ate a few Oreos, and watered the plants.

“NOTE: The final comma in those last two sentences, the one just before and, can be left out. It’s a matter of taste. But since its absence can sometimes change your meaning, and since there’s no harm in leaving it in, my advice is to stick with using the final comma in a series (sometimes called the ‘serial comma’).”

Of course the absence of a final comma doesn’t always make a difference. But let’s invent a sentence (using you know who) in which the lack of a final comma can leave the meaning fuzzy:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

Sounds like the writer’s sisters are Martha and Oprah! Now see how a serial comma ends the ambiguity:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey.”

Our apologies to Martha and Oprah. We hope using them in those two examples isn’t a serial crime!

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