British English vs American English – The Serial Comma

June 27, 2011

in Technical Writing

The differences between British English and American English may not seem that great on face value, and that may be the case for spoken English, but writing is an entirely different ball game. People often presume the differences are limited to basic disciplines like the use of ‘Z’ instead of ‘S’ occasionally, but there are more complicated things to look out for. One such thing is the serial comma, a naughty little comma that has become the subject of much debate across the web and between publishing houses worldwide.

The Serial Comma

The serial comma is an extra comma you will often see placed before “and/or” in US based English. Generally, British English does not make use of this extra comma, but most publications on the US do.  At one time the Brits did use it, but without wanting to get all historical, let’s just make sure we get this right.

For Example:

–       “The cat, dog and the mouse” (British)

–       “The cat, dog, and the mouse” (US)

Or…

–       “Do you want to go to the park, the shops or the cinema”? (British)

–       “Do you want to go to the park, the shops, or the cinema”? (US)

The serial comma is largely down to preference, and different style guides will tell you different things. But as a general rule, the British do not use this extra comma in lists, yet many Americans do.

There is good reason for the Americans clinging onto the serial comma. And the reason is because without the little devil one can get confused.

For Example:

–       “I like strawberries, chocolate and custard”

You see, without a comma before “and”, the sentence above suggests I like chocolate and custard together as a single entity. Yet if I introduce the serial comma, it clarifies exactly what I mean.

–       “I like strawberries, chocolate, and custard”

Now the sentence correctly suggests that I like these three desserts as separate entities.

So although when we write British English we generally don’t use the serial comma, we should use it if the sentence is open to wrongful interpretation.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jean Lazane November 5, 2011 at 7:52 am

I feel validated!!! I’m teaching English writing classes in China and couldn’t figure out some of the obvious (to me) quirks of my students’ writing. I came up with the “British English” and “American English” names after observations and using up a whole red pen putting the comma before the last item in a series in my students’ written assignments.

I finally came to the point where I told them they had to be aware of who their audience would be and write in a style that would make sense to them!

Reply

peter November 5, 2011 at 8:08 am

Hi Jean. Yes, it is very difficult to get to grips with seeing that extra comma if you are British, yet for many Americans, this has been a regular feature in their writing from a young age. However, I am seeing an increasing number of US books published without the extra comma in a series. All the best with your teaching.

Reply

Rezrag Mogron March 14, 2014 at 10:28 am

I too feel wonderfully ‘liberated’. The comma was making my English class restive and when one is teaching pupils who are only three generations removed from their cannibal forefathers, one cannot be too careful. The fact they could scarcely utter an intelligible sentence in English mattered not one jot — they wanted to know whether to use the comma before conjunctions or not. Your advice quite literally proved to be a ‘life-saver’.

Reply

Oliver Lawrence July 31, 2012 at 6:48 am

Your implication is that UK English is in error for avoiding the blanket use of the serial comma. This is not true. Your example above is flawed, because in “I like strawberries, chocolate and custard”, no one thinks that “chocolate and custard” is a unit – for there is no conjunction before it. No one would say “I like strawberries, cream”, for example: they would say “I like strawberries AND cream”.

Using the serial comma can sometimes be wrong (“I love my father, Elvis, and God”, which suggests that Elvis is my father); similarly, omitting the serial comma can sometimes be wrong (“I love my parents, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe”, which suggests that Elvis and Marilyn are my parents). The problem in either case is that the first comma can be interpreted as introducing an appositive. You just have to watch out for potential double meanings when you write sentences that use this kind of list.

Regardless of which variety of English you write in, the serial comma should be used when it is necessary and omitted when it would be confusing. The rest of the time, it’s up to you (but please be consistent). Most (but not all) British writers prefer to omit it when it is not necessary.

Reply

Jon April 29, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I have just come across this post and found your explanation of the serial comma excellent. However, (taking into account Oliver Lawrence’s post) I am not sure the example you give “I like strawberries, chocolate and custard” is confusing to a British writer. As you can see by my comma usage I favour British English. In fact, the example you give is not at all ambiguous and it is the first time I have heard of this point of view. Having said that, I accept that for American writers it may not be clear. Furthermore, people learning English may misunderstand the meaning in some cases. Therefore, the conclusion should be to use the comma before “and” etc. I also notice that the general trend (over time) is to reduce comma usage in British English. For example “Dear Mr Smith” in a business email has lost the comma. Note too the missing dot “.” after Mr.

To be honest I am consistent in the use of the serial comma. An American writer friend of mine is consistent too. When occasionally we teach the same students, are they not confused by our consistency? To say “be consistent” is meaningless in this case.

In my opinion the key is flexibility.

Good post!

Reply

Annette Hoppe September 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm

May I comment on Jon’s discussion of the ‘dot’ after ‘Mr’ :
I was always of the opinion that the dot is omitted when the abbreviation end on the final letter of the word, as in ‘Mister’, ‘Street’, ‘Doctor’. These words would be abbreviated as ‘Mr’, ‘St’, ‘Dr’.
Any comments?
Annette

Reply

Akos Farkas March 29, 2014 at 10:41 am

Here is what the classic British manual on style Fowler’s Modern English Usage has to say about the period in abbreviations: ‘Abbreviations are chiefly made in two ways: one by giving the beginning of the word in one or more letters and then stopping, the other by dropping out some portion of the middle. Those of the first kind are rightly ended with a period, but the common practice of doing the same to the second is ill advised.’ The examples listed in the sae source include this: ‘Mr (not Mr.) for Mister’. So Anette Hope’s opinion seems to be borne out. However, American speakers seem to be consistend about ending ALL curtailed words with a bullet (including Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.). Then again, we have email messages where every sort of punctuation is used sparingly (if at all) by ALL users, regardless of national/cultural/linguistic background. So it all looks pretty complicated. Maybe flexibility is, again, the keyword.
Best,
Akos

Reply

Edwina February 6, 2017 at 10:17 pm

Being an American editor, it would be quite strange to me to not use the period after Mrs., Dr., Mr., or not to use the serial comma. I strongly feel the serial comma makes the sentence more clear so that no matter who reads it, they will understand it.

Reply

Roy Brummell September 29, 2014 at 10:02 am

Thank you very much for distinguishing between British and American usage of the serial comma. Can you recommend a British text that deals with grammar and punctuation?

Thank you very much.

Roy Brummell

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: