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  #1  
Old 02-22-2005, 09:27 AM
Whack-a-Mole Whack-a-Mole is online now
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Comma before a conjunction?

I cannot find my Chicago Style Manual and am in a disagreement with a friend over this.

The title says it all...should there be a comma after a word that immediately precedes a conjucntion?

Example:

A) George has excellent communication skills, fantastic customer service and a genuine enjoyment for his work.

B) George has excellent communication skills, fantastic customer service, and a genuine enjoyment for his work.
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  #2  
Old 02-22-2005, 09:34 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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This is called the "serial comma," and it's one of the most hotly argued points in English style.

Proper usage in published matter is to conform to the preferential style for that publication. Period. Either is correct (save in very rare instances).

ISTM that most people today are tending towards use of it, your option B, for reasons of consistency, because it never causes lack of clarity, where rarely A will. The classic example usually given to show where A can cause problems is "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."
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  #3  
Old 02-22-2005, 09:36 AM
Kimstu Kimstu is offline
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This is sometimes known as the Oxford comma. Short (and possibly out-of-date) answer: British English style manuals generally prefer to use it, American English ones generally prefer not to.
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  #4  
Old 02-22-2005, 09:39 AM
Aeschines Aeschines is offline
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IMO&E, the comma belongs there and is preferred style. I always use it sans exception.
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Old 02-22-2005, 09:40 AM
Aeschines Aeschines is offline
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That said, it's not an "error" in most cases to leave it out. But most publications do use it.
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Old 02-22-2005, 09:51 AM
twickster twickster is offline
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I'm a fan, because, as Polycarp says, it never makes the meaning less clear, and often makes it more clear.
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  #7  
Old 02-22-2005, 09:51 AM
ftg ftg is offline
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Classic example time:

"I would like to thank my parents, God and Madonna."
"I would like to thank my parents, God, and Madonna."
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Old 02-22-2005, 10:03 AM
Yllaria Yllaria is offline
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Quote:
American English ones generally prefer not to.
Except in legal documents, especially when dividing things equally between a group of people. The last two people on the list will get half-shares if the comma is missing.

This came from a writing instructor who was married to a lawyer.
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  #9  
Old 02-22-2005, 10:25 AM
rjk rjk is offline
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I'm with Polycarp, though I would have rephrased his statement a little, just for style. ( ) The clause "where rarely A will" would sound better if it was being contrasted against B 'always' or 'often' doing something. Here I'd phrase it more like "where A can do so in some cases". But that's no big deal.

My biggest concern when I opened the thread was that it might be about what I call the 'non-parallel list' that I see so often. A list has only ONE KIND of item in it! Whack-a-Mole's example is fine: noun, noun, and noun. Each item is the same kind of thing. The most common version of the construction that irritates me so much is the superficially similar list made up of adjective, adjective, and clause. Here's an example:
He is tall, muscular, and works out a lot. (Second comma is optional. )
Analyze the sentence:
He is 'tall'.
He is 'muscular'.
He is 'works out a lot'.
If you want all three in one list, either they all share the same verb, or each one needs its own verb! If you want two items to share a verb while the third has its own, split up the list:
He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot.
There's a list of two adjectives sharing 'is', nested in one of the two clauses sharing 'He'.
[/rant]

There! I feel better now!
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  #10  
Old 02-22-2005, 10:54 AM
Whack-a-Mole Whack-a-Mole is online now
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Thanks for the replies.

As an aside (and to hijack my own thread) is there any significant difference between the New York and Chicago style manuals?
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  #11  
Old 02-22-2005, 11:05 AM
Whack-a-Mole Whack-a-Mole is online now
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Another hijack while I'm at it:

Should you put one or two spaces after a period? I was taught on typewriters and was told two spaces should follow a period but have heard (somewhere) that these days only one space after a period is necessary. I suppose as long as you are consistent this is likely a style choice that would go unnoticed but I am still curious about it.
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  #12  
Old 02-22-2005, 12:31 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is online now
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Two spaces after the period for monospaced fonts, one space after the period for a proportional font.
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  #13  
Old 02-22-2005, 01:44 PM
Xema Xema is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rjk
If you want all three in one list, either they all share the same verb, or each one needs its own verb!
Somewhat similarly, in the OP we have:
George has excellent communication skills, fantastic customer service, and a genuine enjoyment for his work.
It seems awkward to say that George "has" fantastic customer service; he may "offer" it or "have fantastic customer service skills" (though it would also be awkward to re-use "skills").

[I was going to start in on "fantastic", but I'll leave that alone.]
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Old 02-22-2005, 02:48 PM
rjk rjk is offline
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Xema, I agree. That sentence bothered me as I read it, but I skimmed on by because it doesn't match the common pattern that grates on me so badly, and then forgot it while I was ranting. It doesn't seem so blatant as others I've seen, maybe because the list items are all nouns, even though they need different verbs. For that matter, maybe George should show his enjoyment. Let's rewrite the sentence this way:
George has excellent communication skills, offers fantastic customer service, and shows a genuine enjoyment in his work.
(Note that I made it "enjoyment in his work" too.) Then we have a list of clauses, and I'm happy!

(OK, Whack-a-Mole?)
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  #15  
Old 02-22-2005, 02:57 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aeschines
That said, it's not an "error" in most cases to leave it out. But most publications do use it.
Depends by what you mean by "most." Pretty much all newspapers in the US (I can't think of any exceptions) omit the final serial comma. AP Style eschews it, and the vast majority of newspapers follow the Associated Press Stylebook.
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Old 02-22-2005, 03:04 PM
Colibri Colibri is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Whack-a-Mole
I cannot find my Chicago Style Manual and am in a disagreement with a friend over this.

The title says it all...should there be a comma after a word that immediately precedes a conjucntion?

Example:

A) George has excellent communication skills, fantastic customer service and a genuine enjoyment for his work.

B) George has excellent communication skills, fantastic customer service, and a genuine enjoyment for his work.
Specifically, Chicago style uses B. I believe that AP style uses A.

AP style tends to be more condensed (minimizes characters) and is used by most newspapers. Chicago style tends to be used for most other things.
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  #17  
Old 02-22-2005, 03:18 PM
erislover erislover is offline
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I notice the lack of the Oxford comma mostly in menus, where it is sometimes unclear as to what is always included and what is optional.

"Our sides are cornbread, choice of toast, fries and onion rings." What if I want just onion rings? Contrived example but look at menus and you'll see what I mean.
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  #18  
Old 02-22-2005, 05:16 PM
hyjyljyj hyjyljyj is offline
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Pet Peeve Dept.

"He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot."

"Works out a lot" cannot stand on its own as a sentence, so it cannot be written as an independent clause as above. The verb "works" is dependent on the prior clause "He is tall and muscular," using the subject "he" as its own subject. Therefore, "works out a lot" is by definition a dependent clause.

According to the Chicago Manual, a comma should be used between independent clauses but not between an independent one and a dependent one. So, this sentence technically should read

He is tall and muscular, and he works out a lot.

or

He is tall and muscular and works out a lot.

In any event, a strict reading of the OP question renders the answer "certainly not always". There are countless instances in which a word preceding a conjunction needs no comma after it. Flowers filled the fields, red ones and blue ones and purple and yellow and orange ones.

NO: All dogs, that are not on a leash must be on voice command.

No comma before that coordinating conjunction either. And the list of examples could go on and on and on.

Thanks to the posters who clarified the logic behind consistent use of the serial comma, regardless of its common omission in American publications. The "I'd like to thank my parents" examples iced it for me. Using the comma cannot create any discernible confusion, while its omission certainly can. This situation is, IMO, similar in a way to the variants listed by Webster's for the past and present participles of the verb to bus: bused or bussed, busing or bussing. Even though the pronunciations suggested by the morphology of bused and busing are wrong, we already have the words bussed and bussing as the participial forms of the verb to buss (kiss). A sentence such as "My wife and I are strongly opposed to bussing our children" momentarily makes the reader break concentration and seek out clarification from context: What, you don't kiss your kids?--Oh, you meant putting them on school buses. The tiny instant of confusion is exactly the same as in the "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God" example. It doesn't take the reader very long to realize the speaker was not parented by Ayn Rand and God, but it's still too long. Instantaneous clarity makes for smoother reading, which is why from this date forward I am employing the serial comma.
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Old 02-22-2005, 05:44 PM
hyjyljyj hyjyljyj is offline
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Pet Peeve Dept.

"He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot."

"Works out a lot" cannot stand on its own as a sentence, so it cannot be written as an independent clause as above. The verb "works" is dependent on the prior clause "He is tall and muscular," using the subject "he" as its own subject. Therefore, "works out a lot" is by definition a dependent clause.

According to the Chicago Manual, a comma should be used between independent clauses but not between an independent one and a dependent one. So, this sentence technically should read

He is tall and muscular, and he works out a lot.

In any event, a strict reading of the OP question renders the answer "certainly not always". There are countless instances in which a word preceding a conjunction needs no comma after it. Flowers filled the fields, red ones and blue ones and purple and yellow and orange ones.

NO: All dogs, that are not on a leash must be on voice command.

No comma before that coordinating conjunction either. And the list of examples could go on and on and on.

Thanks to the posters who clarified the logic behind consistent use of the serial comma, regardless of its common omission in American publications. The "I'd like to thank my parents" examples iced it for me. Using the comma cannot create any discernible confusion, while its omission certainly can. This situation is, IMO, similar in a way to the variants listed by Webster's for the past and present participles of the verb to bus: bused or bussed, busing or bussing. Even though the pronunciations suggested by the morphology of bused and busing are wrong, we already have the words bussed and bussing as the participial forms of the verb to buss (kiss). A sentence such as "My wife and I are strongly opposed to bussing our children" momentarily makes the reader break concentration and seek out clarification from context: What, you don't kiss your kids?--Oh, you meant putting them on school buses. The tiny instant of confusion is exactly the same as in the "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God" example. It doesn't take the reader very long to realize the speaker was not parented by Ayn Rand and God, but it's still too long. Instantaneous clarity makes for smoother reading, which is why from this date forward I am employing the serial comma.
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  #20  
Old 02-22-2005, 11:10 PM
OxyMoron OxyMoron is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hyjyljyj
Pet Peeve Dept.

"He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot."

"Works out a lot" cannot stand on its own as a sentence, so it cannot be written as an independent clause as above.
Congratulations! You just did! And you made perfect sense doing it!

This is my pet peeve with many style manuals, most particularly the Chicago: they err on the side of arid pedantry, a sawdust-filled pillow designed for suffocating language in its bassinet. Manuals are moderately helpful when artificial consistency is required, especially when one is confronted with incompetent string-writers or, worse, academics. For everyone else, taste and a decent ear are far more useful.

OxyMoron, J.D., Editor.
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  #21  
Old 02-23-2005, 09:47 AM
rjk rjk is offline
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I'm glad I didn't get back here sooner; OxyMoron made my point much more eloquently than I would have. (I especially like the "sawdust filled pillow..." line!) In brief, manuals sometimes nitpick over formal rules, and ignore what works.

Here it is again: "He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot."
hyjyljyj's version: "He is tall and muscular, and he works out a lot."

I still prefer my version, hyjyljyj, even though the clause doesn't stand on its own. I'm sure we could construct an example with some intervening potential subject for the second clause so we'd need to repeat "he" to avoid that "tiny instant of confusion" you mention, but here the subject is clearly still "he" from the beginning of the sentence.

On the other hand, I like the flowers example. It is a bit specialized, but it certainly doesn't need the comma.
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  #22  
Old 02-23-2005, 10:52 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Technically, the examples given in a couple of posts above are not parallel clauses but parallel predicates. And there's nothing wrong syntactically with using them, though stylistically they may not work. (The classic example of this is the Time magazine compression of widely divergent information into the same sentence: "Jones, a 43-year-old bachelor and fan of Tex-Mex cooking, wrote the best-selling The Will to Succeed, and considered becoming a tennis pro in his younger years.")

"He is tall and muscular, and works out a lot" is in no way faulty -- "He," the subject, manages two coordinated verbs and their complements: "is," linking "He" to two descriptive adjectives, and "works out." Because both predicates relate to his physique, they work well together. "He is tall and muscular, and wrote six novels and a history of Luxembourg" doesn't work as well stylistically, since the coordinated predicates are not related in topic. But in terms of syntax only, it's equally acceptable a sentence.

And while we're dealing with connectives and style, may I throw out my own pet peeve: the run-on "therefore" sentence. "Therefore" is a conjunctive adverb, not a conjunction proper. It cannot unite two sentences in terms of syntax, though it links them logically as cause and effect. "Therefore" introducing a statement of result should nearly always be preceded by a period, or in particular unusual cases by a semicolon, and unless it introduces a very short statement should be followed by a comma.

WRONG: "The radio said the Interstate was held up by highway construction, therefore we decided to take the old road."

RIGHT: "The radio said the Interstate was held up by highway construction. (or, better, "...traffic on the Interstate was held up...") Therefore, we decided...."

"Therefore the argument is invalid" is fully acceptable; it's extremely brief. But if the sentence grew by even a few words, a comma after "therefore" is needed.
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  #23  
Old 02-23-2005, 04:29 PM
rjk rjk is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
Technically, the examples given in a couple of posts above are not parallel clauses but parallel predicates. ...
Thanks, Polycarp. I knew that word was in there someplace!

Predicate, predicate, predicate, ...
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