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Commas Before and in a Series

In American English usage, many writers and editors feel that a comma should precede and with three or more items in a series.

Example: I would like to order a salad, a sandwich, and dessert.

Newspapers and magazines do not generally use this rule as print space is too valuable to use on what might be considered extraneous punctuation. However, print publications will use the final comma before and if it is needed to avoid confusion.

Example:
Her $10 million estate was split among her husband, daughter, son, and nephew.

Omitting the comma after son would have led the reader to believe that the son and nephew had to split one-third of the estate (each receiving one-sixth) rather than understanding that each relative received one-fourth of the estate.

Posted on Wednesday, January 17, 2007, at 8:58 pm


68 Comments

68 Responses to “Commas Before and in a Series”

  1. katie says:

    I get the comma part, but why isn’t it Environmental, Health, and Safety Policies?

  2. T.J. says:

    Thank you! In grade-school English, we were taught that the comma before “and” is optional. Over the years, I’ve concluded that this was taught nationally, because the vast majority of people I have dealt with exclude the comma. My husband, who is from a different region, has even argued with me about it.

  3. Jane says:

    Katie, it could be “policies.”
    T.J., while many people have been taught to exclude the comma before “and” in a series, putting a comma in helps clarify. That’s the whole point of punctuation!

  4. TESS says:

    I was taught during my teen years that “and” can already be used as a separator instead of comma. Will it not be repeative if we use comma wiht and at the same time? But if that is the latest innovation now, then i will apply it. Many thanks

  5. Jane says:

    Using a comma before “and” isn’t repetitive; it is helpful in letting your readers know that you mean a separate item on your list.

  6. I bought your blue book and read each of your messages with interest.Thank you!

    Best regards, Robert E. Browne

  7. Maria de Lourdes says:

    Thank you. I didn’t know that. English pontuation is very diferent of brazilian

  8. Oloketuyi says:

    comma before “and” looks like a new thing in Grammar world. If it is, I would like to be more enlightened, because, for a list of words that is three and above, comma would be used to separate list of the worlds until you get to the last two when you will use “and” to separate them. Thanks

  9. Jane says:

    It is a common myth (and practice) to use “and” to replace the comma; however, The Chicago Manual of Style, along with every other authority (American), strongly recommends using the comma to avoid ambiguity.

  10. Amanda Leonard says:

    When I was in school we were still taugh that the comma should be before the “and” in a series, but style manuals do differ in opinion. Most say it is not necessary but does help clairify things. I as a rule do not use it, and was taught that either way is correct but to pick one and be consistant in using it.

  11. Debbie says:

    Hi, I thought the first one was correct, but that was because I thought the Health and Safety was one publication.

  12. Phillip Dunn says:

    i agree with this rule. Leaving the comma out before “and” in a list of three or more items seems to join the last two items, at least to me. For example:

    1) I have worked in the hardware, appliances, boys and girls departments.

    2) I have worked in the hardware, appliances, boys, and girls departments.

    Example 1 makes it unclear if there is a departement called “boys and girls” or if they are two separate departments. Example 2 makes it clear that they are separate.

  13. Dera Williams says:

    Maybe in the example given, a comma is necessary in order to separate
    Health and Safety but normally, it is correct to write with or without a comma. The key is to be consistent.

  14. Jane says:

    Dera, see my comment above about what the Chicago Manual of Style says. Thanks for writing.

  15. freddie says:

    After all this year I always use there is no comma before “and”. I think, comma before “and” litle bit over writting. What I mean is, when we are not using comma before “and”, there is no confusion because “and” is explainning the changing of the words or object.

  16. Aishwariya says:

    This is known as the Oxford comma. In U.K. English, it would be incorrect to use it while in U.S. English, it is mandatory.

  17. Amer Riaz says:

    Commenting on the reply by Phillip Dunn, I suggest the use of & instead of ‘and’ to clarify that two items make up one item of the list. For example:
    I have worked in the hardware, appliances, and boys & girls departments.

    I have been using this technique while writing user manuals.

  18. Jane says:

    This is fine for manuals, perhaps, but not for formal writing.

  19. prashant says:

    i am greatful to you for sending materials regularly. it is helping me a lot.

  20. Dmitry says:

    This is a small discussion I have had with my English teacher in high school recently. She claimed that using a comma before “and” in a title is incorrect (in fact the title of the document was, “Explain, describe and narrate”). I have said that I will prove myself right, and the evidence in this blog is quite sufficient in my eyes.

    Although, I do have a request. Please clarify whether the comma before “and” applies in ALL contexts or just body of a letter or such.

    Thank you

  21. Stephanie says:

    Jane, While Chicago insists on serial comma, AP specifically does NOT use it. I don’t think this is a cut-and-dry issue. I teach high school English, and the Elements of Writing series (very commonly used) specifies that either is correct.

  22. Jane says:

    Stephanie, perhaps this debate will never be resolved. I suggest using the comma before “and” in a series for clarity since there are many occasions when leaving it out causes confusion for readers.
    Dmitry, I don’t know what other contexts you are referring to in your question. Please clarify.

  23. Joe Harkins says:

    Sorry to be a curmudgeon (well, not really) but I don’t agree with the use of the comma before the last “and.”

    Many here report that this was taught in school, confirming to me that it is a recent affectation. I can tell you it wasn’t taught in any of the 6 different Catholic grade schools I attended as our family moved around in the 30s and 40s, nor was it taught in the Jesuit prep high school in any of the three languages that were required.

    Having written professionally (as in “for pay) for hundreds of magazines, newspapers, websites, pamphlets, manuals and commercial publications, I have never had an editor insert that extra comma.

    (BTW, did anyone here have a problem understanding that previous sentence because it lacks an extra comma?)

    I do not recall, offhand, ever seeing it in the fiction or non-fiction of any published writers prior to recent times.

    It remains a mystery for me as to how it got started and an even deeper one as to why it continues.

  24. Jenny Rodriguez says:

    Hasn’t that rule fluctuated? I remember the Comma in after the :”and” then for awhile, then it was out after the “and.”

    I have a question re: the period after or before the second quotation mark. I can’t stand seeing “floating periods”! (or exclamation marks, for that matter) Ex: He was a “true, blue friend”.

  25. Ashley says:

    I disagree with our comma tip when it comes to listing things. In Associated Press style, you do not add a comma before AND. It might not be relevant to your audience, but I thought I would mention it.

  26. Richelle says:

    I’ve always read, and taught my students, that the comma before and wasn’t necessary; actually, I believe it would be correct both ways—with or without the comma.

  27. Heather Hunter says:

    Dear Jane,
    My four yr college degree was in English, and I was taught throughout grade school, junior high and high school that you do NOT need a comma before the word “and” as that is what the word “and” is for. However, if you are changing subject matter, then a comma would be warranted.
    I am the Sr. Tech in our Publications Dept here in a large school district, and I receive masters with and without the comma before the word “and”. I think it’s 50-50 now, but mostly older teachers leave out the comma. I instruct my four children to NOT use the comma; it’s redundant.
    Thanks for your informative and helpful weekly email newsletter,
    Heather

  28. Brian E. Wood says:

    For heaven’s sake! Has no-one ever read (or heard of) G.V. Carey’s ‘Mind the Stop: A brief guide to punctuation’?

    1st publ. CUP, 1939; revised 1958
    Pelican Books, 1971; reprinted in Penguin Books, 1976

    Copyright : Cambridge University Press 1958

    The late, great GVC addressed this ‘problem’ with genius and killed it stone dead. READ HIM, (!) AND STOP ALL THIS TIME-WASTING NONSENSE!

  29. Lance says:

    If, for poetic reasons, one wanted to write “Athenians and Trojans and Spartans have long been…”, would you still insist on commas before each “and”?

  30. Jane says:

    Lance, I would not use commas to separate “Athenians and Trojans and Spartans have long been…”

    Brian, how about sharing G.V. Carey’s response so that we know what he said?

    Heather and everyone else who disagrees with using the comma before the last “and” in a series: I’m sticking with my recommendation to use the comma.

  31. Gregor King says:

    Can I use a colon after using ‘For example’?

    Example: The elements leading to the resulting disaster were many, for example: …….

  32. Jane says:

    No, you can’t use a colon after “for example” in a sentence. Here are some possible ways you could handle the sentence:
    The elements leading to the resulting disaster were many, for example, …
    The elements leading to the resulting disaster were many; for example, …
    The elements leading to the resulting disaster were many: [then don't use "for example"]

  33. Debbie says:

    THANK YOU! This has always been confusing to me. I’m delighted to know the rule so I can finally punctuate accurately.

  34. ravi bedi says:

    Philip Dunn has given explicit example of Girls’ and boys dept., and Girls’, and boys dept. It clarifies what Jane proposes.

  35. Jane says:

    Good point!

  36. ravi bedi says:

    Ref. last examples above.

    ” to my parents, Brad, and Janet”…meaning Brad and Janet other than the parents?
    “to my parents, Brad and Janet”…meaning Brad and Janet are her parents.

    Am I right?

  37. shejo inasu says:

    This is a new information that was useful.
    Thanks.

  38. NK says:

    Putting a comma before an “and” isn’t proper English! But this is America… where we never teach anyone to do things properly. Instead, we “dumb” things down to make them easier for everyone. No wonder this country is going down the tubes.

  39. Jane says:

    Who says that putting a comma before “and” isn’t proper? If this country is indeed “going down the tubes,” in my mind, the comma before “and” doesn’t rank with media and government attempts at “dumbing” us “down.”

  40. Adam G says:

    I usually use the “comma before the and.”

    But in some situations, is it better to not use the comma?

    I work with advertising, marketing, and signage materials and notice that many professional pieces deliberately drop the comma before the and; it seems to be done by design.

    Is it possible that the “comma before the and” is not desired or needed in certain situations, like advertising or signage?

  41. Jane says:

    If a customer doesn’t desire the comma before “and,” then leave it out, of course. However, I find that people are not often aware of this rule and are happy to have the comma added for them.

  42. Tracie says:

    I am an editor, and I believe that using a comma after “and” is most beneficial for a variety of reasons. As a background, I grew up being taught in elementary school through high school you use a comma in a series. For my editing classes in college, we followed the Chicago Manual of Style. The latest edition of Chicago (which is one of the most often used style guides) recommends using the oxford or serial comma. The use of the comma is most helpful to delineating what constitutes a separate entity in a list and also serves to avoid ambiguity. The AP Stylebook, most often used for newspapers and other media, does recommend the comma be omitted before the “and.” I believe this is because AP style focuses more on brevity. Newspapers and the like often have limited space for publication. An extra comma adds extra space to the typesetting. However, I still recommend that for most purposes a comma be used before “and” in a series to avoid ambiguity. That is one of the chief purposes of punctuation and one of the chief rules of writing. Strive for clarity and avoid ambiguity.

  43. Jane says:

    Bravo! Ditto to all your thoughts, Tracie.

  44. Adam G says:

    Thanks for the info.

    I also think that the brevity idea (from AP Stylebook) may be applied to commercial advertising, graphic design, and marketing work for commas before and. It seems like a lot of comma exclusions take place in those situations, for space saving and also possibly aesthetical reasons (from what I’ve seen). Anyone else work in those fields?

  45. JJ says:

    NK, who defines proper English? I would think Oxford University is a fairly authoritarian source on the matter and they say to use the comma – despite the fact that its use is less standard in Britain and the US.

    There are cases where the Oxford comma is ambiguous and cases where its omission is ambiguous.

    Molly, a painter and a musician…. Is that one person or three?
    My dog, Ruffles, and a cat…. Is ruffles my dog or are there three seperate animals?

    Many style guides say to use the Oxford Comma. I would not call following these style guides incorrect or lazy.

    Most newspaper authorities (AP, New York Times, etc.) request to not use the comma for space reasons. This is not a good reason to set a grammar precedent.

    As for the Oxford comma being a new invention, that is just plain false. The debate about whether to use it or not has been around for a long, long time. I learned to use it in the ’80s and I was being taught be 80 year old teachers who wanted things to be done the way they did it as a child. From my understanding the sentiment on this issue has changed several times over the years.

  46. Julie says:

    My main reason for searching this site was to determine if the comma before the and is needed in a list of names. I create birth announcements and at the bottom we list the names of the members of the family such as Victor, Melissa, Kevin, Jenna, Olivia, Gabrielle and Hunter. I have always left out the “oxford” comma, but many of my customers ask me about this when they view their proof. Always the comment is “I think there should be a comma before “and”, but I am not sure” I have always told them the “and” replaces that comma (and thought it did in every instance), but after reading all of the above wisdom, I am going to amend my stance and say that it is used when the last two words in the series could be inadvertently joined in the reader’s mind by the word “and” instead of separated as intended. Great examples above. I was taught not to use it, I graduated high school in 1981 and college in 1986. My son is in 5th grade and is taught to use it in every instance. For names, I think it is unnecessary, and feels redundant, but for a list of objects or elements that could be joined – boys and girls, health and safety, the dog, and parent examples, (vs. the dog and parent) I think we have to use it if indeed each is a separate element. Conversely if the last two in the list are joined, my parents, Bart and Jean, then of course we’d leave it out. Thanks everybody!

  47. Bill says:

    Every school text I ever used said to use a comma before every item in a series of 3 or more. I have my college writing book right here, and it says to use the comma before and. The exception to the rule is in newspapers and magazine because they like to save space. The comma helps with clarity.

    The car lot purchased some new cars. The cars are red, blue, green, black, and white.

    If you write-

    The cars are red, blue, green, black and white. This looks like the last car is a 2 tone car that is both black and white. This is confusing.

    USE the comma!

  48. Jane says:

    I agree completely!

  49. US History Notes says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for the great post ! Found your blog on Google and I’m happy I did. I’ll be reading you on a regular basis ! Thanks again :)
    Thanks,
    Donna

  50. Jane says:

    Thank you, Donna!

  51. Jose M. Blanco says:

    Is this comma called the “Harvard Comma”?

    • Jane says:

      The comma before “and” with a series of three or more items is called the Harvard or the Oxford comma. Helen states that a comma should “never ever come before ‘and’.” This is a strong opinion but most authorities recommend using this comma.

  52. deedee says:

    Help please,
    I have a question about sentences.
    What is the correct puntuation for this sentences?

    Sentence:
    (Please help me wash the dishes)

    is this sentence a statement or question?
    Please help me. My daughter has just started third grade and is having trouble with this sentence.
    If anyone can help,pls do.
    Thanks a lot
    DeeDee

  53. TG says:

    My daughter is doing an assignment on commas. She has various types of sentences involving commas. The following sentence puzzles me.
    The setting is London England Christmas Eve 1843 in various offices and homes.
    I know that a city and state have to be separated by a comma, but I’m not sure about the rest of the sentence. What is the comma rule called that is used in this instance?
    I can use the help. Thanks!

    • Jane says:

      I believe there are two acceptable ways to write this sentence.
      1. Combining Rules 5b and 6 of Commas (and extending the rule for city and state to include city and country): The setting is London, England, Christmas Eve 1843 in various offices and homes. OR
      2. This could be considered “a series of three or more,” and therefore would combine Rule 5 of Commas with Rule 4 of Semicolons: The setting is London, England; Christmas Eve 1843; in various offices and homes.

  54. C.G. says:

    Thank you so much for this!! I’ve been helping my 11 year old with homework for a few years now and I’ve always explained the comma before and in a series is wrong because I did not learn to use it this way but with all of your help and info I’ve been proven wrong. Bill and ravi bedi’s examples were a huge help in realizing the difference and how there can be confusion without the comma before and. Be open minded people the comma before and in a series is by all means needed, although not required, but it should be.

    Thanks Bill, ravi bedi, and Jane :-)

  55. Susan St. Marie says:

    when listing multiple people and titles, is it correct to use a comma or semi-colon?
    i.e. John Smith, M.D., P.I.; Mary Jones, N.P., Sub-I; Jane Johnson, study coordinator;
    Thank you, Susan

    • Jane says:

      Rule 4 of the “Semicolons” section of Grammarbook.com says, “Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.” Since your list has several units that contain commas, the use of semicolons adds clarity.

  56. Susie says:

    I appreciate the information here and agree that often that comma before “and” is helpful, so I use it. But I have another question regarding a series–what do you do with a series in the middle of a sentence? Do you always add another comma after the third item, or would that only be if the series is considered nonessential?
    Examples:
    All monies in checking accounts, money market accounts, and savings accounts shall be considered to be cash equivalents.
    The prosecutor argued that the defendant, who was at the scene of the crime, who had a strong revenge motive, and who had access to the murder weapon, was guilty of homicide. (From Purdue OWL site)

    Thanks!

    • Jane says:

      You would only add a comma after the third item if the series is a nonessential appositive, as is the case in your second example.

  57. Angel says:

    Question:
    In a closing of a memoriam/”signed by” (“Sadly missed by”)
    Your wife, Karen and your family
    Your wife Karen and your family
    Your wife, Karen; and your family
    when Karen is the wife? – Which to use?

    • Jane says:

      Our Commas, Rule 11, states: If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description following it is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas. Therefore: Your wife, Karen, and your family

  58. Steph says:

    I am British and was taught to omit the comma before and, when in a list. The main time we can use a comma before “and” etc, is when inserting between two or more independent clauses. For example, “It’s been raining all night, and the roads are slippery.” If you omit the “and”, the two clauses could function as separate sentences and a comma can therefore be used. In terms of lists, shouldn’t one always put “and” before the last item? If this is so, the sentence, “The cars are blue, green, black and white” is not confusing. There are white cars and black cars. If, however, there were cars that were black and white, surely the sentence would be, “The cars are blue, green and black and white.” In this instance it could be argued, in British English, that the Oxford comma could (but not should) be used before the first and. The names are very good examples of using commas, at one’s discretion, in order to clarify. This is definitely not the case in a standard list in British English though. I am fairly young and was taught grammar at school, as well as at home, and this is not, in my experience, modern practice in the U.K. Highly confusing I must admit! Jane, the responses regarding semi colons have been most helpful. As far as I am aware, the U.S. and U.K. rules are the same for this. Phew!

    • Jane says:

      In order to avoid confusion, I am in agreement with The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule which says, “Items in a series are normally separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity. If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and (see the last two examples below).

      She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.
      Before heading out the door, she took note of the typical outlines of sweet gum, ginkgo, and elm leaves.
      I want no ifs, ands, or buts.
      Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.
      Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.
      John was singing, Jean was playing guitar, and Alan was running errands and furnishing food.”

      Therefore, in American English, your example with black and white cars is written as:

      The cars are blue, green, and black and white.

  59. Heather says:

    I note you rule (Rule 2) under Commas stating to use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word “and” can be inserted between them. What about colors?

    i.e. A white, one-floor trailer – is this correct?

    “The house had a blue tin roof?

    “He was a tall, white, thin male.”

    “She was a 48-year-old white female.”

    Is there an actual rule advising in the use of colors to know when you should use a comma and when you shouldn’t in sentences with more than one adjective that includes a color? Also, for example, when describing a person, or shirt (i.e. she wore a blue, collared, long-sleeved blouse.)

    • Jane says:

      Colors are adjectives, therefore our Rule 2 under Commas applies to colors. There is not a separate rule specific to colors.

      a white one-floor trailer (No comma is necessary. You would not say “a white and one-floor trailer.”)
      The house had a blue tin roof. (No comma is necessary. You would not say “The house had a blue and tin roof.”)
      She was a 48-year-old white female. (No comma is necessary. You would not say “She was a 48-year-old and white female.”)

      Our Rule 1 under Commas applies to your other examples. “To avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more.”

      He was a tall, white, thin male.
      She wore a blue, collared, long-sleeved blouse.

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