Clarification Needed Regarding the Listing Comma


The Listing Comma, Please Help

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As some of you already know, I’m seeking out the official British English grammar guidelines on the internet and posting them as lessons. The emphasis is on British English grammar here as taught in the United Kingdom. There are differences, although often slight, between British English grammar and American English, and the same applies to Australian, Canadian and New Zealand English.

The thing is, there is conflicting advice about the listing comma. I was born in England and have lived all my life here. During my education I learned when listing items to use a comma after every item including the one before the ‘and … ‘.

Example: She went to the shops and bought bread, potatoes, carrots, and milk.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online states in their British English advice:

“We do not normally use a comma before and at the end of a list of single words:

They travelled through Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

American English does use a comma in lists before and:

We took bread, cheese, and fruit with us.”

This seems to contradict what I and my contemporaries learned in English schools.  I would really appreciate your comments on this.

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About caroleparkes

My husband calls me a butterfly because I flit from one hobby to another. Apart from being a wife for 52 years, a mother of three sons, and a grandmother, I'm also an author, genealogist, amateur artist, a lover of most needlecrafts, and occasional poet. Of the above, my most enduring interest has been writing and I hope to be doing it well into old age.
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25 Responses to Clarification Needed Regarding the Listing Comma

  1. archecotech says:

    Comma come, Comma be gone. When the Pilgrims left so did the comma. Probably a good thing 🙂

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  2. Elle says:

    Oh dear, I’m afraid if I’m in a generous mood and very free with the use of serial commas and if I’m not I hardly use them at all. I think I’d better be more consistent with my usage.

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  3. Hence the confusion of non-natives trying to learn English. British, Australian, Canadian, American, commas , no commas, slang, omg! And we think we’re confused. Thank you for pointing out the vagaries of English grammar. Many thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate it.

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  4. josiecinders says:

    I’ve never heard that called a “listing” comma before, but only the “Oxford” comma. There is a great debate raging over the usage of the Oxford comma, and I guess I can only say that you should follow your conscience. Personally, I am a great believer in the Oxford comma and use it all the time. I am a traditionalist, and not interested in new-fangled abbreviations and the leaving-out of things that you can hear in speech. The Oxford comma makes sense to me because it reflects a pause that I personally make while speaking a list aloud. I side with Oxford in believing that it is right and proper.

    But this is just one person’s opinion. You must do what feels most natural to you. I don’t think the jury has come back with a final decision on this issue, and it may never do so for all we know. Bear in mind that written language is an attempt to describe a spoken language, and if you don’t hear an Oxford comma in your own speech patterns, perhaps you shouldn’t use it in your writing. I don’t know how else to advise you without blindly shoving my own opinion down your throat. You know my opinion, but you must form your own.

    As for posting lessons to others on proper British English, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether Cambridge trumps Oxford. I’m not about to get into that sort of debate. Ah’m jist a dum ol’ ‘Murican, wudda ah no? 😉

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    • caroleparkes says:

      Thank you so much for your imput. My identification of it as the listing comma just proves my ignorance, and why I’m attempting to learn by looking up these ‘lessons’ on the internet.The online Oxford Dictionaries call it the ‘serial comma’. I didn’t realise this comma was still in debate; knowing it is, I suppose I should stick to what I’ve always done and use it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. pamkirst2014 says:

    Carole, I grew up in the States and learned NOT to use a comma before the ‘and’. However, the College at which I teach definitely endorses the ‘serial comma.’

    I’ve looked this up and there’s definitely two accepted schools of thought. I’ve come to like the comma, because it clarifies whether the last terms are separate items or a term…like ‘ham and eggs’ as opposed to …ham, and eggs’…

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  6. This looks to be as good an explanation as I’ve seen — it’s a matter of style and occasionally clarification. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/06/oxford-comma/

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    • caroleparkes says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I thought I’d just grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick. I never realised there was uncertainty about it’s usage. I think I’ll stick with using it, I can always claim it’s my style, ha ha.

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  7. I was taught not to use a comma before the ‘and’ because it introduces the item at the end of the list. I haven’t been told anything to the contrary and, like you, I’ve noticed the opposing views. Sorry I don’t have a ‘hard and fast’ rule for you 🙂

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  8. kaygy says:

    I would like to think that either way it is still correct. Though, The school I attended taught in the British system and we were told not to use a comma before ‘and’.

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  9. Also called the Oxford comma. Listing comma sounds like it’s listing to port or starboard 😀

    No right or wrong to my knowledge, although style guides may specify eg your reference to Cambridge. I learned not to use it in lists at school but it was used for clarification in journalism depending on the lists ie, if one component on the list is bacon and eggs, you wouldn’t write bacon and eggs and … you would add a comma after eggs because bacon and eggs is a single unit in the list. Not a very good example but I’m too brain dead to think of a better one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • caroleparkes says:

      Thank you for your interesting comments. Calling it ‘listing’ was just me showing my ignorance.I now know it’s called the ‘serial comma’ by the Oxford Dictionaries and they say to use it in British English. This is completely opposite to what the Cambridge Dictionaries advise on British English.

      No wonder I’m a bit of a dunce! 🙂

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      • My comment about listing was tongue in cheek, hope I didn’t cause offence. TBH it took me years before I discovered it had a name. I prefer Oxford as serial reminds me of serial killers!

        It’s not wrong to use it, not wrong if you don’t use it, but, there are occasions when it improves clarity. If you are happy using it then you won’t need to worry about that 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I am as confused as you are. I began using the comma before the word and but never used to. Hope you get good feedback.

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I'd love to hear your views.

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