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Where are the commas?

Every native speaker has a different opinion about where the commas go when you list more than 2 words. Which is correct? “apples, oranges and grapes.” or “apples, oranges, and grapes”

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@ Archie: Isn't even the last "and" technically a conjunction? What else can it be if it is not a conjunction?

"A boy came across some grazing cattle. There was a brindle, a brown, a black and white, and a red."

matthiaskranke October 20, 2008, 10:21pm

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Should have been "into practice" ...

matthiaskranke October 20, 2008, 10:09pm

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Not being a native speaker, I wonder whether the problem with the serial comma in "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God" could be solved by using "as well as" before "God". That is at least how I would attempt to reduce ambiguity in my mother tongue (German: using "sowie" - like "and" but sometimes good to use instead).

Another thing I am highly interested in is the use (or not) of a comma after "that" in the following two sentences:
- Note that(,) while Smith has good ideas, he cannot put them to practice.
- Everyone should know that(,) in 1994, most cars used on American roads were Japanese ones.

I would certainly use the comma in the second instance (parenthetic expression) and feel tempted to do so in the first as well.
However, I have seen ex. 1 with one and two commas, ex. 2 with none, one and two.

matthiaskranke October 20, 2008, 10:08pm

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i had an english teacher who told our class that the final comma is sometimes optional but she didn't know when, so she said to just always put it. Additionally, it would be useful to know that she was an idiot. In conclusion, please be referred to dariensan | Nov-13-02 4:30PM

rebubula August 22, 2008, 11:21am

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If the sentence goes like this,"....low, medium and high costs", should there be a comma preceding "and"?

ram August 22, 2008, 12:47am

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Here's an argument given to me by a lawyer (for what its worth):


No comma before the conjunction:
I gave my money to Tom, Dick and Harry.

According to a lawyer, if this were a very simplified version of a will, a lawyer would view 'Dick and Harry' as a partnership, therefore dividing the sum of money between two groups, 1.) Tom; and 2.) Dick and Harry.

By adding the comma before the conjunction, you are able to avoid any confusion in this area.

Also, when a series becomes complicated (i.e. ...Tom, Washington D.C.; Dick, New York; and Harry, Atlanta...) you must insert the comma. Again, it seems to me that using a serial comma makes the most sense.

eric_scheidt June 16, 2008, 6:29pm

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I can't believe this whole discussion. I spent 12 years in school learning where to put the bloody commas, 4 years in college, 3 years getting a Master's Degree, and umpteen years teaching grammar to high schoolers after that.The commas went in the same place the whole stinkin time!!! There was never any question about it, and if I ommitted one or added one too many, my professors painted in blood on my English Lit. papers!!! (extra punctuation entirely my choice!!!) I now find myself raising a grandchild and googling "Commas in a Series" to find out why his second grade teacher bled on his language paper!!! What's happening to this world?

jkidd13 February 20, 2007, 3:18pm

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When do you use a comma after the abbreviation of e.g.?

lenore_boehnlein June 21, 2006, 6:44pm

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The Oxford Comma (as a serial comma before the "and" in a list is known) is optional. It's all a matter of what makes the meaning least ambiguous and most aethetically pleasing.

I often use the Oxford Comma:

"Yesterday I ate apples, bananas, and cherries."

But in the following sentence I would generally drop it because doing so seems to fuse "cherries" more closely to "bananas", thereby making the division in the sentence by the second "and" stronger:

"Yesterday I ate apples, bananas and cherries, and then I bought some oranges."

Chris February 18, 2006, 6:19am

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I know some will agree with me and some won't, but I was taught in school (some time ago, I might add) that the comma in question was optional. This is what I was taught and what appeared in print in my grammar textbooks throughout my entire education. I mean optional with no qualification whatsoever. Either way is completely correct.
I generally add the comma because it does usually eliminate any possible ambiguity, but I view this as purely a matter of personal preference and would never claim that the opposite view is incorrect in any way.

P.S. - In many postings on this website, I often see references to various style manuals as justification for all sorts of points of views. I would like to remind you all that, while useful to help support a particular position, style manuals are just that: STYLE manuals. They are not authoritative RULEbooks. A newspaper, magazine, or trade organization (etc.) uses one to create a uniform appearance in their writings. Ambiguous rules may be resolved in such a manual, but, that's because sometimes grammar rules ARE ambiguous. The manual doesn't claim to be right or wrong. It just establishes a common practise for the sake of consistency within the organization.

P.P.S. - Maybe I should start a new post for this, but I was taught that words like however, regardless, thus, and even the simple "but", when used in the middle of a sentence, should be preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma. Today, it seems that, especially with "but", it is preceded with a comma with no comma afterwards. I believe that modern grammar now accepts both but prefers the simpler. Comments?

porsche January 31, 2006, 1:00am

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Dear comma-or?

I understand your problem. I would say that it depends on the context.

If you were trying to ask whether or not the person liked them then don't put the "or" so it would be "apples or oranges, blue or green, or square or round"

If you were trying to ask which one in the list the person liked the best then you would write: apples or oranges, blue or green, square or round.

Smartgrl_09 January 30, 2006, 6:38pm

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When you are trying to decide whether or not to put a comma before "and" don't fret. Whether or not to put a comma before "and" is a very disputed issue. Most people would say not to, some people say do. In reality it does not matter, whether you put a comma in front of and or not is optional. Although, if you were writing a paper you could put a comma or not, just as long as you are consistent throughout the paper.
Trust me on this one, I am an English Teacher from California.

Smartgrl_09 January 30, 2006, 6:32pm

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As to me to create the same page?

Baliy January 14, 2006, 5:58pm

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Hmmm. Well, since you appear to be indicating that the reader is to choose one option from the three given, perhaps you really mean, "...whether you prefer apples or oranges, green or blue, AND square or round"? (The reader could respond, "Apples, blue, AND square.")

"And" is a conjunction, and "or" is a disjunction. Conjunctions combine and disjunctions separate.

If you really mean for the reader to pick just one of the six things, you would write, "...whether you prefer apples, oranges, green, blue, square, or round." But it wouldn't make much sense unless you were under the influence of something quite mind-bending. :)

Hope that helps.

speedwell2 September 7, 2004, 6:23pm

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quick question submitted in the hopes that someone will answer it quickly: How do you write something like, "whether you prefer apples or oranges, green or blue, square or round, I still can't tell you if there should be an 'or' in front of the word 'square.'"? "whether you prefer apples or oranges, green or blue, or square or round"?

comma-or? September 7, 2004, 3:39pm

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I'm still brushing ashes out of my hair after the last time I said this, but it turns out neither way is incorrect at the moment. Just be consistent within your document (don't mix them) and stay with the style preferred by the entity for whom you are writing the document (such as your school, business, or publisher).

Me, I put a comma where I stop when reading the series aloud. You don't usually say "apples (break) orangesnpears;" you say, "apples (break) oranges (break) and pears."

(strides into battle waving a pen and yelling, "Comma before conjunction!")

speedwell2 June 15, 2004, 8:12am

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I am from the old school of not using a serial comma before a conjuntion as that was the way I was taught in school.

I was corrected by a person who works for a grade school system. She said the comma is used, now, such as apples, bananas, and pears.

I still do not feel comfortable when I see that being done.

septimo June 15, 2004, 12:19am

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The point about the conjunction is a good one. I should have included it. Thanks.

speedwell2 June 1, 2004, 8:37am

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As a newspaper writer and one who loves to study the English language I have been taught to add commas in front of the word 'and' unless it is a conjunction. An example would be: A boy came across some grazing cattle. There was a brindle, a brown, a black and white, and a red.
A comma after each cow's colour but one cow is black and white so the 'and' is a conjunction, therefore no comma is required. The 'and' before 'a red' is not a conjunction.

jarchibald May 30, 2004, 9:54pm

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My opinion on this amounts to an unreasonable and dogmatic belief. In documentation meetings, people have unfortunately learned not to ask my advice about this particular issue anymore.

I ALWAYS place a comma before the last "and" or "or" when writing for a U.S. reader or in non-business writing. I suspect this happens because of my speech patterns.

Now wait, I SAID "opinion." In business writing, I always use the comma if the documentation is intended for our U.S. locations or for a document intended to be used company-wide. When writing specifically for our non-U.S. offices, I actually do omit the comma. And then I get struck by lightning. (just kidding)

Mr. Crow... "...Ayn Rand and God...." Subtle and pretty funny, that. :)

speedwell2 May 25, 2004, 8:10am

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As a Brit, I find the use of the serial comma in the U.S. surprising. We were taught in school to write "A, B and C".

Some have argued that using the serial comma removes a source of ambiguity, as in "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God". Adding a comma here would remove the ambiguity. However it should be noted that using the serial comma can also create a source of ambiguity, for example "We considered Miss Roberts for the roles of Marjorie,
David's mother, and Louise". This sentence would no longer be ambiguous, if the final comma were removed.

The guideline to always use the serial comma is is prefered in the U.S., except in some newspapers (e.g. New York Times)

In the U.K. and Commonwealth countries the normal guideline is to omit the serial comma. The exception here is Oxford University Press, where the serial comma is used.

ocrow May 24, 2004, 5:35pm

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The serial comma sometimes helps clarity. It never diminishes clarity. Use it all the time and you'll never have to worry about whether you need it or not in a specific instance.

web March 18, 2003, 2:43am

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This is the vexing question of the "serial comma."

I, personally, believe in the serial comma. Its lack leads to such amazing sentences as "I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

In practical terms, choose either to use the serial comma or not to use it, then be consistent. Half of your readers will be convinced that you're wrong, no matter which you choose.

yog March 17, 2003, 11:19pm

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The rule I learned as a child in Western Canada is this:

Two or three items, no comma. More than three items, comma.

The rule I've learned as an adult writer: do whatever reads most clearly.

david March 17, 2003, 11:06pm

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The MLA Handbook and other punctuation and writing sources suggest using commas before the word and. "apples, oranges, and pears".

The grammatical reason is because you do not want to group oranges and pears together, rather seperate them. in a long list, you could classify things together using "and" while still using commas after. For example, whenever you are listing something that uses the word and in it, but may not desire them to be seperate items. I cannot think of a good example, but let's try this: "The Following groups of people will be attending tonight's event: Bob Wilson and Sarah Pelton, Doug Smith and Linda Johnson, George Jones and Sally Walters, and Alex Borton." I know it is a poor example, but since people are being intentionally grouped together, it would be confusing to say "Bob Wilson and Sarah Pelton, Doug Smith and Linda Johnson, George Jones and Sally Walters and Alex Borton." It would make it sound like as if the last listed were all going together as a group. Please forgive the poor example, but basically it is required to have a comma to seperate lists within lists.

bluepxl February 2, 2003, 8:13pm

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A common point of contest. I use the comma before and, because I was taught by S&W believers, but some style books have it the other way. It is often a matter of style rather than correctness, though to me, the extra comma makes it clearer in many instances.

From the Chicago Manual of Style:

Q. Hello. In the sentence “I went to the store to buy eggs, milk and cheese” do you put a comma after “milk”? What is the standard now for comma usage after the second-to-last item? I have seen such sentences both with and without the comma. Thanks.

A. Chicago style is to put a comma there (it’s called a “serial” comma). There are times when that comma is necessary to avoid awkwardness or ambiguity: “My favorite combinations are green and yellow, blue and purple and black and red.” Since it is sometimes needed, and is never wrong, the simplest way to impose consistency without having to stop and think about each instance is to form a habit of adding the serial comma.

HonBancho December 22, 2002, 1:44pm

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Hi, to what I know, it depends on what type of English you use. British English doesn't put a comma before 'and', but American English does, although there is a compromise more or less.

biks November 21, 2002, 9:27pm

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I think both ways are correct. It boils down to what style of writing you choose to use. AP style has no comma before the last item.

mrb November 21, 2002, 10:11am

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I actually feel that Strunk's suggestion is superior, especially in the cases like:

"You can buy 3 different kinds of film for your camera: slide, black and white, and negative."

If you always omitted the comma before "and", then you end up with:
"slide, black and white and negative" which is confusing.

Dyske November 13, 2002, 7:42pm

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Fancy that. I swear to all that is holy that English sucks donkey testicles.

yoinkmydanish November 13, 2002, 4:30pm

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Now, this is interesting. Everyone I spoke to in the past about this told me not to put comma before "and". But according to Strunk's Elements of Style, "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last." See the examples on this page:

Dyske November 12, 2002, 11:21am

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'apples, oranges and pears' is correct. A comma is basically a short pause, the word 'and' normally receives a similar pause so
'apples, oranges, and pears' doubles up on the pausing.

Merge November 12, 2002, 12:12am

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The fewer commas the more likely it's correct. Mistakes with commas are either using none (causing run on sentences extraordinaire), or using far, too, many, after every, word. If you aren't sure a comma belongs somewhere, it probably doesn't.

"apples, oranges and pears" is most likely correct.

yoinkmydanish November 11, 2002, 4:53pm

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Yes     No