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How to Use Commas in a Series of Items

Learn how to use commas in a series of items from Gotham Writers' Workshop instructor Stephanie Paterik in this Howcast grammar video.


There are many ways to use a comma in your writing and one of them is to separate items in a series so, say you have a series of adjectives or a series of nouns the comma can help you separate them.

I wanna show an example of using a comma in a series and it's actually a pretty funny internet name that you've maybe seen online before and it illustrates how to use the comma and the importance of a comma for clarity. Here's an example, let's say you have a sentence, says "We invited the strippers JFK and Starlin"

So, your having a party and very strangely your inviting the strippers JFK and Starlin. You can see in this scenario we've separated each of the nouns the strippers, JFK and Starlin with a comma and this comma right here, the one that comes before the end is called the oxford comma.

There's a huge amount of debate about the oxford comma and weather or not you'll need it, with more I think a literally circles advocating for the oxford comma and you know, journalist and maybe more informal writers advocating to drop the oxford comma and letting the end do the job but this is a good example of why you need... sometimes the oxford comma otherwise your sentence will take on a very crazy and foreseen meaning. Without the oxford comma, you get this sentence "We invited the strippers comma JFK and Starlin."

Without the oxford comma here the meaning of the sentence becomes that we've just invited the strippers and the strippers are JFK and Starlin, so you can see how the comma can be really helpful in clarifying the meaning of your sentence. So another way to use a comma in a series, is when you have a series of adjective, just back then we were looking at nouns and now were gonna take a look at adjectives. "The bread had a sweet comma lemonade scent" In this case we have two adjectives, sweet and lemonade describing the word scent and we used a comma to separate the two of them. Now you don't always use a comma between adjectives, the way you can make the decision and know if you need it or not, is if you replace the comma with the word "and" if it makes sense then you need the comma there, in this case "The bread had a sweet and lemonade scent." That still makes sense so, we can use the and or we can replace it with a comma but we cant have nothing there.

"There bread had a sweet lemonade scent." Without a comma and without a conjunction is incorrect. Here's an example when we have two adjectives but we don't use a comma. "Five smart students got A's" On this case were describing the students as both smart and for saying that there are five of them but we don't put a comma here and you can use the test they just old you about figure out why. Wouldn't make sense to insert the word and between this two adjectives, five and smart students got A's. It doesn't make sense, which is why you take out the comma you don't need the comma in this instance. Usually when this happens, numbers are involves so just keep that in mind. I hope this gives you some good information about how to separate a series of items in your sentence using the comma.

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