Sarah Lichtner
The Oxford Comma: A Science Writing Must-Have
Sarah LichtnerSeptember 12, 2013

Editors are passionate about punctuation. I have taken a black Sharpie to one of my own wall decorations, fulfilling the urge to add commas to “Eat Drink and Be Merry.” To see an editor’s true colors, ask them if they prefer the Oxford, or serial comma: the comma before the “and” in the last item of a list, as in “Eat, drink, and be merry.”

It’s a heated debate; even the major style guides don’t agree. The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style prefer it, but the Associated Press does not, leaving the serial comma behind in most news stories. The Onion even joked that the Oxford comma could be at the center of an editing feud that could push innocent bystanders to the brink of insanity.

When it comes to science writing, the serial comma is a must. Here’s what the serial comma achieves.

1. Clarity –Writers sometimes joke about how commas save lives, citing the difference between “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma.” In science writing, without the serial comma, a reader could misinterpret instructions or even scientific conclusions. The serial comma eliminates confusion about the relationships between items in a series.

Without the serial comma: I’ve been reading this morning about two solutions to climate change, mosquito vaccinations and off-shore drilling.

With the serial comma: I’ve been reading this morning about two solutions to climate change, mosquito vaccinations, and off-shore drilling.

2.  Accessibility – A non-scientist reading about science may not be familiar with certain terminology. Using a serial comma can provide a reader with context clues and mark off the term that may be unfamiliar, allowing for an easier and likely more fruitful Google search.

Without the serial comma: New materials compositions, advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing and robotics and increased strategies for materials recycling and reuse will help make materials in our everyday lives more affordable and energy efficient.

With the serial comma: New materials compositions, advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing and robotics, and increased strategies for materials recycling and reuse will help make materials in our everyday lives more affordable and energy efficient.

3. Conciseness – The use of the serial comma eliminates the need for additional words to distinguish items in a series from one another. Cutting dozens of “as well as” and replacing them with a comma followed by “and” can go a long way when you need a little more white space on a page.

Without the serial comma: Some potential strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions include advanced manufacturing technologies, carbon capture and sequestration as well as increased integration of renewables such as wind and solar.

With the serial comma: Some potential strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions include advanced manufacturing technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, and increased integration of renewables such as wind and solar.

Clarity, accessibility, and conciseness are critical components that ensure that science writing is understood by the policymakers and innovators that can make change happen. A serial comma could mean the difference between a quick decision on funding a game-changing technology or time wasted trying to figure out confusing language.