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Using a Comma before And in a List
Writers frequently wonder whether a comma should go before the conjunction and in a list of three or more items. Despite the fact that not all style books agree on this issue, we recommend using a comma after the next-to-last item in a seriesthe serial comma, as it is called. This recommendation also applies, of course, when the items in a list are joined by the conjunction or.
Although many of us were taught not to use a comma before and in a list, today the vast majority of style guides do advocate the use of the serial comma because it can prevent a possible misreading. Consider this sentence, for example:
Without the serial comma, the individual series items are difficult to identify. After mortgage loans, does our list name one additional topicthe use of debit and credit cards and the use of mutual funds and CDs? Or does it contain two more itemsthe use of debit and credit cards and mutual funds and CDs? Or does it contain three more itemsthe use of debit and credit cards, mutual funds, and CDs? With the serial comma added, we can see clearly that we have here a list of four program topics, not two or three:
Although such logical precision might seem trivial when we are talking about topics at a conference, it can be absolutely crucial in certain kinds of writing. Take legal documents, for example. The Texas Law Review Manual on Usage, Style, and Editing (9th ed., Texas Law Review Association, 2002) insists on the use of the serial comma. In The Lawyer's Book of Rules for Effective Legal Writing, Thomas R. Haggard says, The serial comma is essential in legal writing because it promotes clarity (17). Consider this sentence:
Without the serial comma, the sentence does not clearly indicate that each of the three children is to be given an equal share of the inheritance. Quite possibly (especially if Huey were a jerk), Huey would get half the money, and Dewey and Louie would have to split the other half.
Here's another example of a sentence in which the omission of the serial comma has a substantive effect on the meaning:
Without the serial comma before the last and, the sentence could be interpreted to mean that only the children of Betty and Harold Spivey are to receive a share of the inheritance and not the children of the other couples. But with the additional comma, the sentence more clearly communicates the idea that the children of all three couples are to receive a share:
In all kinds of writing, of course, the meaning of the items in a list may be obvious without the serial comma. But we are usually poor judges of our own clarityor lack thereof. We tend to think we are being clear because we know what we mean to say. If we were to write, for example, The table was covered with gifts, food and flowers, the meaning might appear to be quite clear without the serial comma. But even this seemingly simple and clear sentence could be read two ways: The table may be covered with three different kinds of items: (1) gifts, (2) food, and (3) flowers. Or the table may be covered with gifts, all of which fall into one of two categoriesfood or flowers.
It is always wise to check your company's in-house style manual or the style manual that governs your profession. In the United States, the vast majority of reputable style guideswith the exception of style guides for journalists, such as the well-known manual published by the Associated Pressencourage or even mandate the serial comma. We don't know for certain, but we can suppose that print journalists omit the serial comma because in their profession, saving keystrokes means saving money. Nonetheless, even style guides that generally discourage its use do agree that at times it is necessary for clarity and/or readability.
Which of these sentences would be improved by the addition of the serial comma?
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