comma before 'and' [serial comma]: percentage of Americans using it?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by e2efour, Jan 31, 2010.

  1. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    I sometimes have to adapt a text I have translated into BE to bring it into line with American punctuation rules. So if I have list of more than three things, I dutifully put a comma before and (as in: Spain, Portugal, and Germany are all EU member states). This is not the norm in the UK, of course, although some publications adopt it (especially the Oxford University Press). Sometimes, even in BE, it is helpful to add a comma before and.

    My question is about what percentage of Americans follow this "rule", even in the example I gave (where the use of the comma seems absolutely pointless to me). Are there Americans who never use the Oxford comma? Since it is only a convention (and not compulsory), I would be surprised if teachers corrected students' texts which did not follow the "rule". And on what grounds?
  2. preppie Senior Member

    Mid Atlantic, US
    American English (Mostly MidAtlantic)
    I was taught, many years ago, that the syntax is A, B, and C. My daughter informs me that they are now teaching "A, B and C". I doubt that anyone has studied the syntax enough to get a percentage but both are acceptable in AE.
  3. Faycelina Senior Member

    I can just add that I'm currently reading an American book about management and I found this "Oxford comma" for the first time in my life and it surprised me a lot so I even asked here on the forum whether it is correct ;)

    It seems like Americans use it ;) Is it really so popular in British English?
  4. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    American English
    I use a modified system. When the flag is green, white and red, I drop the Oxford comma. But when I am offering one week's holiday in beautiful Bali, a three-bedroom villa with infinity pool, and your choice of exciting tours, then I put it in. It's all about length and understanding for me.
  5. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    If you search on Oxford comma you'll find a number of previous discussions. I understand it's called the Harvard comma in AmE:)
  6. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    As you say, it is a convention rather than a "rule". I follow it at times and ignore it at others. Because it is a stylistic choice I have never corrected it (forced a stylistic choice) on a student's paper. I have never had a teacher question my inconsistent use of it, as far as I can remember.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
  8. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    U.S. newspaper usage is to never use a comma before the "and" when dealing with a simple list, particularly since it's just one more unneeded character.

    Copyright's post above, however, follows the rule since the situation becomes more complex when the comma is used to set off a modifier.
  9. mplsray Senior Member

    The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, on the other hand, in its section on punctuation here, calls for the comma in such a list. Examples given include "red, white, and blue" and "a, b, and c."

    I would expect that the vast majority of Americans have been taught to use the serial comma from a young age.
  10. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I think the vast majority of older Americans have been taught to use the serial comma, but I don't think that is still the case.

    As others have said, both are acceptable.
  11. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States
    Since I attended parochial schools, I just assumed it was something the nuns taught.

    Now, I wonder. Was it taught regularly in public school years ago?

    It's so ingrained in me now, I can't NOT use it.
  12. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    It was taught to me in public school.... years ago. :)
  13. Cypherpunk Senior Member

    Springdale, AR
    US, English
    I seem to be a bit younger than many who have posted to the thread, and I can confirm that it was taught in my high school in the late '80s, and it was reiterated when I was in college in the early '90s.
    I was definitely not taught that it was optional, either in my regular or AP high school classes. It was expected in my college classes, but it was listed in the rules by several professors, who were telling students major mistakes to avoid in their papers.
  14. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    American English
    Just adding an exception to the style I mentioned in post #4: if there is a natural compound in a short list, I set that off with a comma:

    Don't forget the mustard, ketchup, and salt and pepper.
    Don't forget the sugar, salt and pepper, and lime.
  15. Spira Banned

    South of France
    UK English
    I understand that, Copyright, but it would also sound natural to write Don't forget the sugar, salt, pepper and lime, wouldn't it?
    What I mean is, while compounds which dispense of the comma do exist, it doesn't sound bizarre to separate them with the comma, does it?
  16. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    American English
    No, it sounds perfectly fine. I won't forget any of them. :)
  17. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    I believe the vast majority of Americans today are taught next to nothing about commas. When I went to elementary school in the 1940s, we were taught the pattern a, b, and c, and I still happily follow that.

    The three major corporations I worked for before retirement all demanded the use of the Harvard comma in their documentation.
  18. Spira Banned

    South of France
    UK English
    I thank you all. I went to a pretty good grammar school in London in the 70's.
    I have learned of the existence of the serial/Oxford/Harvard comma today.
    This is why we frequent WR forums, right?
  19. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    English - US
    A better example:
    There were ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.
  20. Spira Banned

    South of France
    UK English
    Yes, a very good example!
  21. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    From that menu, could I get a cucumber sandwich and a cream cheese sandwich separately? If only the combination "cucumber and cream cheese" sandwiches are available (as I think this is what the example means), how would we punctuate for absolute clarity? Might another comma help? These "natural compounds" are challenging! Should we possibly hyphenate (as if they were normal compound adjectives)?
    There were ham-and-cheese, peanut-butter-and-jelly, and cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches. I am glad I don't have to make editorial decisions. :eek:
  22. Spira Banned

    South of France
    UK English
    I do think that according to the menu, cucumber sandwiches and cream cheese sandwiches are not an option.
    Perhaps they should be, but as the sentence stands, it is completely clear (to me) that there are three possibilities, and not an infinite combination of the ingredients.
    On a language level, quite clear !!
  23. Adge Senior Member

    Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
    USA- English (Southern)
    I'll throw in my two cents and say that my family seems to be backwards compared to what others are saying. My father, who's 56, never uses the Oxford comma. I have absolutely no idea if he learned it in school, but I know he hasn't used it as long as I've been paying attention to these things. I'm 23 and I was taught that it was mandatory all the way through school.
  24. Spira Banned

    South of France
    UK English
    You are saying that you learned the opposite to what your father learned?
    (sorry, I'm trying to decipher your sentences).

    I just read you for the 5th time, and I think that IS what you are saying. So that means that the rules have changed in the US with time, right?
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2010
  25. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    As I surmised!
    The ham and cheese combo and the peanut butter and jelly combo versions are set off by commas and clearly not available separately. If we put an additional comma, for example, between the and and the cucumber, that combo would also be set off separately.

    I grew up without the Oxford/Harvard comma (thinking the commas represented ands) but it's only these "salt and pepper" and "peanut butter and jelly" compounds that messed up my "system" :(
  26. Adge Senior Member

    Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
    USA- English (Southern)
    Sorry! :eek: That's exactly what I meant. It's just that most of the others seem to have the opposite experience- the older ones seem to have be taught to use that comma and the younger ones to discard it. I just wanted to point out that difference.

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