The debate whether to use a comma before and will likely play out to the end of time with strong supporters on both sides. The so-called Oxford or serial comma refers to the punctuation mark that appears before and in a series of items. In this case, its usage is a matter of style. But there are some rules when not to use it.
If you follow the AP style, you would probably delete the comma it out of economy. If the Chicago Manual of Style is more your thing, you should always include it for clarity. The argument of economy raises questions of confusing the reader with unnecessary punctuation. The AP style reserves the right to use it if necessary.
You should only use the comma in series of three or more. There is no risk of confusion when you’re speaking of only two things.
The use of a comma with independent clauses is more straightforward. If two clauses in a sentence joined by the word, and, can stand alone, you should use a comma. If that’s not the case, you can omit it. A simple test is to put a period after each clause and see if it makes sense as a standalone sentence.
Readers from South Africa, Great Britain and Australia won’t see a comma before often. In the United States, the ranks are further divided. On the pro-comma side, you’ll find book and magazine publishers. Newspapers tend to lean anti-comma.
As you can well imagine, the sharp divisions have fueled the war of words—and jokes. You’ll see them poking fun at the confusion over the absence and inclusion of a comma before and. The pro-comma side will tell you about the applicant’s interests which included cooking, dogs and boats.
The anti-comma side will point out the ingredients of the goat cheese salad that included lettuce, tomato, goats, and cheese. Well, at least we can laugh about it. But the question still lingers. Should you keep the comma or delete it? We have a solution.
The answer to this quandary is that you should go with flow. Follow the style guide of the publication for which you are writing and be consistent. If it’s for online work, go with the preferences of your audience. Bear in mind that journals often have in-house guidelines too. Regardless of style, we have one last word of advice.
If there is any chance of confusion, err on the side of caution and leave the comma in place. Even the AP style guide suggests using a comma in a series that includes items with and or or. Consistency and clarity are the hallmarks of good writing. This post is dedicated to my parents, Homer Simpson and Wonder Woman.