So, I've got the following list containing a nonessential phrase ("ultimately"), non-Oxford comma:

stifling curiosity, creativity and, ultimately, progress.

Is it then correct, when converted to an Oxford comma, to end up with this monstrosity?

stifling curiosity, creativity, and, ultimately, progress.

  • 5
    It is at The New Yorker and other publications. This is a matter of style, and there is no "correct" style.
    – Robusto
    Jun 11, 2019 at 12:22
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    As usual, there exists in these areas a point beyond which trying to force a convention to hold (or to pursue an analysis using existing terminology) becomes nonsensical. '... stifling curiosity, creativity, and, ultimately, progress' doesn't conform to the minimalist (subject to reasonable clarity) trend in punctuation nowadays. '... stifling curiosity, creativity, and ultimately progress' looks far better. Even if it doesn't conform to the third law of wiggleuse. Jun 11, 2019 at 12:52
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    If you are uncomfortable with this clash of conventions, you could change something. "stifling curiosity, creativity, and (ultimately) progress."
    – GEdgar
    Jun 11, 2019 at 13:43
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    I don't know the names of the conventions, but using alternate delimiters is valid. One version I was taught would have you upgrade the Oxford commas to semi colons, there. "...curiosity; creativity; and, ultimately, progress." Another would have you leave the commas off that "ultimately". Yet another would use dashes for it. That is probably what I'd do. "...creativity, and--ultimately--progress."
    – The Nate
    Jun 11, 2019 at 14:59
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    @TheNate "creativity, and -- ultimately -- progress" looks like a winner.
    – Nat
    Jun 11, 2019 at 22:47

2 Answers 2


Yes. You are applying two distinct comma guidelines consistently:

  • The commas around a nonessential element. (Purdue OWL has some examples.)

  • Commas (including the serial comma) separating items in a list of three or more elements. (Number 5 in this list.)

There is no standard guideline for what to do if the application of multiple rules leads to a clusterfudge of commas. Whether you would rephrase or omit the serial comma in your example is an editorial decision. I'd suggest rephrasing if I have a stylistic concern. However, the New Yorker wouldn't; in an article entitled "In Defense of 'Nutty Commas,'" they justify both the use of the serial comma and a low hurdle for considering something a nonessential element. So they have:

“I invited my boss, her nephew, and my acupuncturist to the party.” (straightforward serial comma example)

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …” ("of brain cancer, in 1991" is treated as a pair of nonessential elements)

Whatever you choose, be consistent.

  • 1
    They disliked relevant examples, sample sentences and, mostly, disagreement of any kind. :)
    – Lambie
    Jun 11, 2019 at 13:24

This isn't a situation that there are any prescribed rules for to my knowledge. You'll have to make a decision and apply it consistently. My opinion on the matter is that you should ignore the commas around non-essential phrases rule in this case. In my opinion

stifling curiosity, creativity, and ultimately, progress.

is superior to the two forms in your question. Because the stifling of progress is implied to be a result of the stifling of curiosity and creativity, I think it would also be appropriate to say:

stifling curiosity and creativity, and, ultimately, progress.

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