Behold the power of the comma

Happy Monday everyone, and here is your Monday Morning Tip from Marshallsay English!

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had so many questions about punctuation that I decided to write a series of short articles on the subject. Today, we are going to start with the easiest – writing lists using commas and semi-colons.

Basically, we use a comma to separate items in a list with more than two items.

I like peaches, apples and pears. [No comma before the last item.]


I like peaches, apples, and pears. [A comma before the last item.]

It is important to note that both sentences are correct. The last comma in the sentence above is known as an Oxford comma. It is the optional comma before the word and at the end of a list. Personally, I always use an Oxford comma because it makes things clearer. Let’s look at an example to show why. Without the Oxford comma:

Tom thanked his parents, Tiffany Smith and Al Pacino.

The sentence is grammatically correct; however, to a native English speaker, it says that Tom’s parents are Tiffany Smith and Al Pacino! If you add an Oxford comma, there is no question at all:

Tom thanked his parents, Tiffany Smith, and Al Pacino.

While the above example could be funny, whether or not to use an Oxford comma has had serious legal consequences for a company in the United States. Three truck drivers sued their employer for overtime pay based on the way their contract was written. The company disagreed. In the end, the court decided that the punctuation in one key sentence in the contract was unclear. One missing comma changed the meaning enough that the court found in favour of the drivers. The company had to pay the drivers $5 million in compensation.

If you are unsure, just use the extra comma. It doesn’t cost anything and could save you a lot of headaches!

Using semi-colons in a list

If you are making a list of things already separated by commas, use a semi-colon to separate these items. For example:

The workshops will be held in the following cities: Houston, Texas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Springfield, Missouri.

Next week, we’ll dive deeper into grammar and commas – so stay tuned!


If you found this tip helpful, check out my new online course, Complex Emails Made Simple. In this course, I cover email structure and formality, politeness and softening, and writing difficult emails. A great course to help you every day!

My name is Laura Marshallsay, and I help professionals improve their English so they can present themselves to the world with confidence. Contact me today about your Business English training needs. One-to-one lessons, classroom training, and workshops are available. Check out my website, for more information and to download my free guide “Top Tips for Conference Calls.”

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