You, me, and the comma

Writing requires precision. You need to be clear.

There are five “Elementary Rules of Usage” that relate to commas in the legendary Strunk and White. I talk about one in this post, I’ll come back to the others in future posts. I’ve reproduced the relevant page below.

Strunk and White’s Elementary Rules of Usage. Using commas in lists is discussed at the top of the page. Click on the image to see an enlarged version.

Suppose you want to write a list of three or more things. Put a comma before the last item in the list. Here’s some examples:

  • The American and Australian flags are red, white, and blue.
  • The choices of shirts are red, blue, black, and white.
  • The city was bursting with cars, trains, automobiles, trucks, bicycles, and motorcycles.

The key point is that there’s a comma before the last item in the list.

Why’s this important? If you omit the comma, there’s ambiguity. Take the second example: “The choices of shirts are red, blue, black, and white”. It’s clear that there are four choices of shirt colors. If you omit the final comma, we’d have the following: “The choices of shirts are red, blue, black and white”. Are there three choices? Is the last choice a black and white shirt? Or are there four choices? If there were indeed three choices, this would be correctly written as “The choices of shirts are red, blue, and black and white”.

There is one exception to this rule. That’s when it’s a list of people in a company name. In that case, it’s obvious there’s no ambiguity. Here’s some examples:

  • Togut, Segal & Segal LLP
  • Amper, Politziner & Mattia
  • Berry, Dunn, McNeil & Parker

Grab a copy of Strunk and White (my latest copy is this beautifully illustrated, hardcover edition). Read the first ten pages (and then decide whether to read the rest, or pop it on your bookshelf and get street cred from your colleagues).

3 thoughts on “You, me, and the comma

  1. Leonid Boytsov (@srchvrs)

    As far as I remember, not all stylebooks recommend commas in this situation. Furthermore, there are languages, where they don’t use comma before AND. These languages are doing just fine. People deal with language ambiguity all the time (polysemy, e.g., is much worse), so I don’t think that it is a good argument in support of this comma.

  2. Ardent Logophile

    Totally love this post! And, thanks for the reference. This is a perfect opportunity for me to mention that I like the way you present information. :)

  3. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    Leonid -> I trust Strunk and White. In any case, why would you want ambiguity when it can be avoided? Ardent -> thank you.

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