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  #1  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:01 PM
Gadarene Gadarene is offline
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Punctuation Question: Lists of Three or More

If anyone's gonna do the obligatory "Hi, Opal!" joke, they should get it out of the way now.

Anyhow, I was doing some research a few minutes ago and was unreasonably bothered, as is my wont, by a list with three items and only one comma, like so:

Quote:
Connecticut, Washington and Wisconsin
I learned in school that one should put a comma after all but the last item in a three item list. Increasingly, however, I've seen lists without that final comma, even in formal papers, books, and newspaper articles. I find this disturbing. I'm a pedant.

So my question is: has "no comma between penultimate item and final item" become the standard? Or is it widely used but nevertheless still incorrect?

Do I buy peaches, apricots, and nectarines? Or do I buy peaches, apricots and nectarines?
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  #2  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:09 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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According to the AP Stylebook, which most newspapers use, there is no comma after the penultimate item in a list. The reasoning is that the conjunction "and" implies a comma, and thus one is unnecessary.

Most other stylebooks require you use the comma.

In my opinion, while keeping or omitting the comma doesn't make any difference in comprehension 95% of the time, there are certainly instances where the comma is useful. Coming from a journalism background, I was taught AP Style, but after careful deliberation on the subject, I think using the comma is a good idea.
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  #3  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:10 PM
Giles Giles is offline
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I'd buy peaches, apricots and nectarines. The only case where I'd put a comma before that final "and" is if one of the items on the list contained an "and" internally, e.g. "That fast-food place sells hamburgers, fish and chips, and fried chicken." However, I'm an Australian -- I think US usage is generally to use the comma before that final "and".
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  #4  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:17 PM
TellMeI'mNotCrazy TellMeI'mNotCrazy is offline
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My understanding is that either way is acceptable, as long as the same rule is applied consistently throughout the document.
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  #5  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:22 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is online now
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What you learned in school has nothing to do with anything when it comes to English language usage and style. This is a universal truth, no matter when, where, or how you were educated.

What in the U.S. is called the serial comma is purely a matter of style, and which style you use is up to you unless you are required to conform to a particular style guide.

Complicating the issue is that the convention of use varies from industry to journalism to academia to law, varies over time, and varies from English-speaking country to country. And there are times in which it must be used to avoid confusion.

My personal preference is to always use it. That way there is never a possibility of confusion.
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  #6  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:44 PM
Shade Shade is offline
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For the record, there are ambiguous situations both with and without the comma.

Dedicated to my parents, John and Anna. (Four people? Or two?)
Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and God. (is it saying his father is john smith? Or are there three separate people?)
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  #7  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:55 PM
Gadarene Gadarene is offline
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Thanks for the responses so far, everyone.

Quote:
Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and God. (is it saying his father is john smith? Or are there three separate people?)
Good point, although if it's the former you easily could alleviate the confusion by saying, "Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and to God."

I'm inclined to agree with pulykamell that, "rightness" and "wrongness" aside (and yeah, I'm familiar with the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate), the meaning is almost always clear whether or not the comma is used...but that the comma is more likely to clear up possible confusion than to cause it.
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  #8  
Old 06-29-2004, 01:58 PM
Terminus Est Terminus Est is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Shade
For the record, there are ambiguous situations both with and without the comma.

Dedicated to my parents, John and Anna. (Four people? Or two?)
Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and God. (is it saying his father is john smith? Or are there three separate people?)
The apocryphal dedication is supposed to read "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God".
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  #9  
Old 06-29-2004, 02:10 PM
Shade Shade is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gadarene
Good point, although if it's the former you easily could alleviate the confusion by saying, "Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and to God."
Fair enough, but I think it's always possible to remove the ambiguity ("to his father, God, and John Smith","To my parents: John and Anna","To my parents, and John and Anna"). My point was that some people think the serial comma avoids all ambiguity - well, perhaps it avoids it more often, but it's not a Panacea.
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  #10  
Old 06-29-2004, 07:51 PM
Just Ed Just Ed is offline
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Lynne Truss remarks in Eats, Shoots & Leaves regarding the Oxford comma:
Quote:
There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.


Her general conclusion is that it is sometimes stylistically preferred, but is by no means always absolutely necessary.
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  #11  
Old 06-29-2004, 07:57 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Shade
For the record, there are ambiguous situations both with and without the comma.

Dedicated to my parents, John and Anna. (Four people? Or two?)
Dedicated to his father, John Smith, and God. (is it saying his father is john smith? Or are there three separate people?)
In such situations, you just rewrite the thing. Grammar doesn't cause such ambiguties - bad writing does.

"To John, Anna and my parents"; "To John and Anna, my parents". "To his father, to John Smith and to God." Problem solved.
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  #12  
Old 06-29-2004, 07:59 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
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Acck, just realised Shade said the same thing. Anyway - my point is that if there's ambiguity, it's the obligation of the writer to remove it.
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  #13  
Old 06-29-2004, 08:10 PM
Roches Roches is offline
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While it often clears ambiguity, this use of the comma does occasionally introduce some as well. For example, in a comma-heavy sentence, using a comma in a list may not result in a clear distinction between serial commas and commas marking dependent clauses:

Last Sunday, my friend, Steve, went to the store, bought a bag of chips, a bottle of Coke, a can of corn, and a pound of sugar, and went home.

Of course, the serial comma is not necessary in a list that uses polysyndeton ('many ands'):

I hate mushrooms and gravy and eggs and horseradish.

Using a comma before the final 'and' in a polysyndeton would be confusing, because some of the listed items might seem to collapse into compounds:

I hate gravy and eggs, and horseradish. (But would you like gravy with roast beef? Or eggs with ketchup?)

To me, what determines whether to use the final comma is whether there ought to be a pause before the final item of the list. Polysyndeta and lists without the comma before 'and' tend to emphasize all the items in the list equally. Lists with a comma before 'and' tend to emphasize the last item in the list slightly more than the others. Lists with no 'and' (asyndeton) tend not to emphasize any item in the list, though this device is more common in compound sentences than in comma lists.
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  #14  
Old 06-29-2004, 08:13 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Quixotic
Lynne Truss remarks in Eats, Shoots & Leaves regarding the Oxford comma:



Her general conclusion is that it is sometimes stylistically preferred, but is by no means always absolutely necessary.
I've just finished reading the book, and will tell you that Truss doesn't really know all that much about punctuation. It's riddled with errors, and the first one I noticed is that she is inconsistent about serial commas, sometimes leaving them out, and other times putting them in.

The book is a pretty poor guide overall.
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  #15  
Old 06-29-2004, 08:15 PM
Balthisar Balthisar is offline
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Unless in something that requires you to follow a particular style guide (school, work, whatever), it seems like it's always best to use the comma after the penultimate item. (It's also a good idea to use "penultimate" since it's a lot more concise).

I'm a fast reader. Easily three or four times faster than when having to read out loud. That "missing" comma always screws up my rythm. Yeah, at a talking speed, it's no problem. But it's like hitting a stone wall when trying to read at a reasonable speed.

"I want red, orange, blue-green, pink and grey." Instead of the full-stop I expect another comma and another list item, because I automatically assume that "pink and grey" are one item.

Consider verb clauses. "I want to go to the store, run to the corner, and beat up the neighbor's kid." Or "I want to go to the store, run to the corner and beat up the neighbors kid." Kind of leads to ambiguity as other's have mentioned above.

So since consistency is so important, and there are cases where you really need the comma, then it's only "proper" to always use the comma.

Oh, one more thing about newspapers -- it used to be (and maybe still is) that every point counted, meaning that maybe the style guides are meant to preserve space rather than enforce any type of true consistency in its use. Look at headlines, story structure, and so on, and I'd bet that space is still a big, big concern.
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  #16  
Old 06-29-2004, 10:23 PM
Just Ed Just Ed is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RealityChuck
I've just finished reading the book, and will tell you that Truss doesn't really know all that much about punctuation. It's riddled with errors, and the first one I noticed is that she is inconsistent about serial commas, sometimes leaving them out, and other times putting them in.

The book is a pretty poor guide overall.
That may be (I confess I did not examine the text itself for Truss's own errors), but I found it an enjoyable read. Perhaps I just found her quaint defense of some form of intellectualism in the face of so much jaded dismissal of standards comforting somehow. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
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  #17  
Old 06-29-2004, 10:39 PM
Hunter Hawk Hunter Hawk is offline
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From my copy of Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style:

Quote:
In a series of three or more items with a single conjunction, use a comma after each item except the last one:

Quote:
The Computer Services Group provides assistance in graphics applications, equipment procurement, data analysis, and personal computer networking.
Some authorities recommend omitting the comma before the conjunction except when misreading might result. They argue that the conjunction signals the final break in the series and, therefore, the final comma is unnecessary. However, including the final comma leaves no doubt about the author's meaning.

Do not use a comma if conjunctions ("...one and two and three") join all the items in a series.
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  #18  
Old 06-29-2004, 10:43 PM
Roches Roches is offline
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With 'pink and grey' I think I would use hyphens, though I'm probably more inclined to hyphenate than most. Hyphens, with this sort of phrase, make it clear which 'and's are not part of the list:

We had potato salad, grilled chicken, coleslaw, and peaches-and-cream corn at the picnic.

(This is an example of a final comma making the sentence more clear, also.)

One thing I don't agree with is that you need to be consistent; I don't think I'm always consistent with placing a comma after the penultimate item in a list, and I think, in some cases, both styles have a place. Provided that it's clear that the last two items are separate, one can use a comma before 'and' to emphasize the last item, or 'and' without a comma to emphasize the last two.
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  #19  
Old 06-30-2004, 06:33 PM
FilmGeek FilmGeek is offline
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I remember being told in the fifth grade or so that the "rules" had changed and the second comma in a list of three was no longer necessary. We were graded down if we continued to use it.

So, "puppies, kittens, and rabbits" went to "puppies, kittens and rabbits". The second has always seemed more streamlined to me.
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  #20  
Old 06-30-2004, 06:37 PM
FilmGeek FilmGeek is offline
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Also, in the "Everyday Writer" which is the style manual adopted by the English department at the University of Kansas says that every item but the last in a list should have commas, but warns that you should follow the wants of your instructor or work superior when deciding to leave it or not. For example, if your boss at the newspaper doesn't like the comma, just leave it out.
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  #21  
Old 06-30-2004, 06:56 PM
Yllaria Yllaria is online now
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I've been told that in legal documents in the US, the comma is necessary. If, for example, you leave a will for $6 million, to be divided equally between four people: Paul, Jan, Joan, and Bill will each get $1.5 million. But Paul, Jan, Joan and Bill wil get $2/$2/$1/$1 million.

It was heresay information, though, and I'm prepared to be corrected.

Personally, I vote for using the comma.
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  #22  
Old 06-30-2004, 07:16 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roches
One thing I don't agree with is that you need to be consistent; I don't think I'm always consistent with placing a comma after the penultimate item in a list, and I think, in some cases, both styles have a place. Provided that it's clear that the last two items are separate, one can use a comma before 'and' to emphasize the last item, or 'and' without a comma to emphasize the last two.
I think you should be consistent. That's the whole point of stylebooks. If you start flip-flopping on how you punctuate certain things, you run the risk of confusing the reader. Inconsistent use of punctuation drives me batty–like reading a Middle English text before orthography was standardized.
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  #23  
Old 06-30-2004, 07:18 PM
SmackFu SmackFu is offline
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What happens when you mix comma style rules with "major city so drop the state" style rules? This (from CBS MarketWatch):
Quote:
Beginning July 19, the "King of All Media" will be heard in Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Austin, Texas; Fresno, Calif.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla.
The AP had it very ugly when it first came out, using all commas in this sentence, but they fixed it to use semicolons, thus thwarting my plan to mock them:
Quote:
Stern said his program would air on stations in Houston; San Diego; Tampa, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Orlando, Fla.; Austin, Texas; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Fresno, Calif., all owned by Infinity Broadcasting.
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  #24  
Old 07-01-2004, 12:03 AM
633squadron 633squadron is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gadarene
So my question is: has "no comma between penultimate item and final item" become the standard? Or is it widely used but nevertheless still incorrect?
As someone else noted, both styles of punctuation are acceptable. The one you found is the most commonly-known difference between the Associated Press Style Guide and the University of Chicago Style Guide (aka The Chicago Manual of Style).

Since I'm a tech writer, I follow Chicago. Just the site of its bright orange cover brings a tear to my eye If I was a journalist, and followed the Chicago style, an editor would correct me. IMHO, this is nit-picking, but its what makes the writing world go 'round.

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  #25  
Old 07-01-2004, 06:30 AM
Colophon Colophon is offline
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I'm a sub-editor, and I say no to the Oxford comma -- unless leaving it out would cause ambiguity. (Ha, what a cop-out!) Where the listed items include commas, I'd use semicolons.

So:

I went to the grocer's and bought apples, bananas, guavas and pears.

We couldn't be bothered to cook so we ordered pizza, Chinese, and fish and chips. [Although I would maybe opt to change the order to make it clearer]

Britney's tour took in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Tallahassee, Florida.
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