In honor of the new season of Dexter…endorsing the serial comma.

Dexter is the eponymous serial killer hero of the Showtime television series. The TV show – the first episode of the fifth season aired Sunday – is fraught with moral ambiguity, note the strange bedfellows “killer” and “hero” applied at one time to the leading character.

The serial comma (SC), too, is fraught with ambiguity. It is the comma that does or does not go before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more words as in:

The fruit basket contained bananas, apples, oranges, grapes and kiwi fruit.


The fruit basket contained bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, and kiwi fruit.

Naysayers believe the SC is redundant since the “and” does a pretty good job of separation all by itself. Here at THE WORD PROCESS, we were evenly split on this issue until recently. One of us was a serial comma-ist, the other was not. The two great gurus of punctuation are similarly divided. The SC tends to be standard in most non-journalistic writing, which typically follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Journalists, however, usually follow the Associated Press Style Guide, which advises against it.

Preparing our last blog entry, we noted that Punctuation Man, he of Punctuation Day fame, has come out in favor of the SC. (In fact, he came out two years ago.) His argument is consistency.

There are cases where everybody agrees the SC is needed, as in the following example:

Raspberry and strawberry, kiwi and lemon, blueberry and lime and banana and orange smoothies were offered at the café.

The confusion is obvious. Without a comma after “lime,” it is not clear if there is one blueberry, lime, banana and orange flavored smoothie or two, one flavored blueberry and lime and the other, banana and orange.

Because the SC is necessary in some instances, Punctuation Man argues that it makes sense to use it all the time. We are not going to argue with that.

Now, is Dexter a killer or a hero?