Commas Before and in a Series



Many of you no doubt saw the news last week that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined our ranks of fellow grammar watchdogs when he issued instructions to his staff on the proper use of commas. According to an internal State Department email given to CNN, “The Secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas in his paper (both their inclusion and omission).”

One example illustrated Secretary Pompeo’s preference for the use of the Oxford comma: “The wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread.” In honor of the Secretary, today we are including our article about commas in a series of three or more items that we first published on January 17, 2007.

We heard this news on CNN as reported by anchor Erica Hill in amused bewilderment that “this is about usage of commas”? Simultaneously, the crawler at the bottom of the screen ironically demonstrated the inclusion of an unnecessary comma: “EMAILS: POMPEO, STICKLER, FOR PROPER PUNCTUATION BY STAFF.” Unless Secretary Pompeo is joined in his campaign for proper punctuation by someone named Stickler, we recommend omission of the second comma.

Adding to the irony, the New York Magazine‘s Daily Intelligencer led off its story by unknowingly demonstrating the unfortunate omission of a comma:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a problem with improper punctuation and his staff is making sure everyone at the State Department knows about it. [Where’s the comma before and separating the two independent clauses?]

We at GrammarBook.com welcome Secretary Pompeo’s focus on proper grammar and punctuation, and we welcome him to our unofficial society of grammar nerds.

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.

For easy reference, you can find our full list of comma rules and guidelines at GrammarBook.com.

Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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11 Comments on Commas Before and in a Series

11 responses to “Commas Before and in a Series”

  1. Peggy says:

    “…daughter, son and nephew.” Could it also lead one to believe the son and nephew are the same person? The American family.

  2. Brenda Russell says:

    Wow! Adding even more irony …
    “Adding to the irony, the New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, led off its story …”

    As I learned grammar and punctuation over 40 years ago, that second comma is egregiously extraneous.

  3. Ravi Bedi says:

    Please throw some light on the use of a comma in a speech or dialogue.

  4. Roy Dullum says:

    Can you please, please make your articles printable?

  5. PJ says:

    Oxford commas should always be used to affirmatively define the relationship between the last two items in a list, rather than assuming the reader will know. The writer either means that the last two items represent a single “thing” (cookies and creme, an ice cream flavor) or separate “things” (cookies, and creme). The writer should always use the comma for clarity. How can the writer presume to know the capability and understanding of the reader? Readers may or may not be able to discern whether the items are related or not. The writer should never assume. Unfortunately, the AP style guide defines it as optional, which is why we rarely see used in newspapers; the one place where it should be mandatory, for clarity.

  6. Bill says:

    I have a question regarding the “Commas and Periods” Quiz 1, on page 147 of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. In this quiz, sentence #2 reads:
    “Yes,” Ting said “I did see the baby panda at the zoo today.”

    The answer key places a comma after “said.” However, I wonder whether “‘Yes,’ Ting said” constitutes an independent clause (ie, “Ting said yes”), and whether a semicolon might be more appropriate in this instance.

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