At least five factors dictate how items in an in-line list — a series of items within a paragraph, as opposed to a vertical list — are organized. (See an earlier post about in-line lists.) It’s all about the context: alphabetization, chronology, complexity, interrelationship, or sequence. (Guess which context I chose for the preceding sentence.)
1. “Our shop specializes in teak, ebony, and mahogany furniture.”
The store may stock more teak than ebony and more ebony than mahogany, or the order may reflect relative prices, but the sentence does not explicitly or implicitly express either idea. In such ambiguous cases, alphabetical order is an appropriate default setting: “Our shop specializes in ebony, mahogany, and teak furniture.”
2. “The major US wars of the nineteenth century were the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the War of 1812.”
The presentation of information in this sentence does not justify the order in which the list items are given. If it specifically referred to the relative cost in human lives or in dollars, for example, then the sequence would follow that theme, but in the absence of an obvious context, reference to historical events should be chronological: “The major US wars of the nineteenth century were the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War.”
3. “Among his favorite musical pastimes are drumming in a world music ensemble, yodeling, and playing the harpsichord.”
Again, absent a contextual framework for a list, it’s best to impose order. In this case, the somewhat amorphous descriptions don’t readily admit an alphabetical scheme, so perhaps, for euphony, the items should be arranged from simplest to most complex in terms of syllabication: “Among his favorite musical pastimes are yodeling, playing the harpsichord, and drumming in a world music ensemble.”
4. “It is allowed in some countries, forbidden in a few, and tolerated in others.”
This list describes three degrees of tolerance for a certain policy, so the items should be listed in an ascending or descending order: “It is allowed in some countries, tolerated in others, and forbidden in a few.”
5. “Take a look at the map, and you will see that Scandinavia consists of Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden.”
Without the reference to the map, this sentence could be organized by any one of several schemes, including alphabetical order, geographical location, and relative size. But because speakers of English generally read left to right, and maps are usually oriented to the north, a west-to-east organizational scheme seems most appropriate: “Take a look at the map, and you will see that Scandinavia consists of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.” (OK, Denmark’s westernmost point is slightly to the east of Norway’s, but would you separate the twins Norway and Sweden?)
These contexts are not always mutually exclusive: In a sentence like “The Olympic medals are gold, silver, and bronze,” the scheme could be described as one of interrelationship (gold is more valuable than silver, which is more valuable than bronze) or sequence (gold is for first place, silver for second place, and bronze for third place). But that’s not the point; the idea is to provide some framework — any framework — for a list so as not to distract the reader.
Sometimes, a list’s lineup is determined more by tradition than anything else: “The original Three Stooges consisted of Moe, Larry, and Curly.” Moe was the leader of the group, but there’s no reason to mention Larry before Curly rather than the other way around except that it seems to trip off the tongue more easily that way. Sometimes, that’s as good a reason as any.