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:

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?

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.

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”.

My understanding is that either way is acceptable, as long as the same rule is applied consistently throughout the document.

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.

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?)

Thanks for the responses so far, everyone.

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.

The apocryphal dedication is supposed to read “To my parents, Ayn Rand and 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

From my copy of Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style:

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.

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.

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.