When a Comma Means “And”

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Although “blessed” by Fowler and the Chicago Manual of Style, the serial comma is readily dropped by a growing number of writers who prefer the advice given in the AP Style Guide:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and egg for breakfast.

In the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, R.L Trask likewise recommends omitting a comma before and. As does the AP guide, he says the only excuse for placing a comma before the and is to avoid ambiguity.

Trask points out another use of what he calls the “listing comma.”

In a list of adjectives all describing the same noun, a comma may be used to separate them: My dog’s long, dense, rough fur requires frequent brushing.

A frequent error is to place commas between adjectives that are not all describing the same noun: My first pet was a purebred, Alaskan Husky.

By remembering that the listing comma is a substitute for the word and, writers can avoid error by mentally replacing each comma in a list of adjectives with the word and.

Compare the following examples:
My dog’s long and dense and rough fur needs frequent brushing.
My first pet was a purebred and Alaskan Husky

In the first example, replacing the commas with the word and makes the expression cumbersome, but it does not alter the sense. All three adjectives describe the same noun, “fur.”

In the second example, replacing the comma with and makes no sense because “purebred” does not describe “Husky”; it describes “Alaskan Husky.” It’s sufficient to write, “My first pet was a purebred Alaskan Husky.”

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16 thoughts on “When a Comma Means “And””

  1. Chuck and Elysia,
    The steam-roller is on the move. Many corporate style guides go with AP, not CMOS. I’m expected to be as comma-free as possible at this site where I write about education . In the complicated world of punctuation, commitment to the serial comma can be quite comforting.

  2. They got me to drop the hyphen in “email.” They got me to follow a period at the end of a sentence with just one space instead of two spaces. But they’ll never, ever get me to drop my beloved serial comma.

  3. While the AP guide advises against the so-called serial comma, it’s important to understand the AP guide’s motivation: it saves space.

    Journalists have a legitimate interest in avoiding ambiguity, but they and their editors are even more focused on saving space, thereby leaving more space available for the newspaper’s display advertising.

    Here are examples (poached from one of many internet sources) of the space-saving effect of omitting the serial comma:

    1. “I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.” (Besides suggesting that a child was born to Jesus and Oprah, the lack of a serial comma also implies that Jesus’ last name is Winfrey.)

    2. “A notorious gambler, Charlie Sheen owed money to his ex-wives, Billy Bob Thornton and Hugh Grant.”

    3. “This award is dedicated to my good friends, Young Jeezy and God.”

    4. “. . . highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” (Note: this is a real example from “The Times” of London.)

    The serial comma is clearly necessary in some circumstances. The choice of professional writers, then, seems to be to follow two rules: (1) omit the serial comma when unintended effects aren’t created and (2) use the serial comma to cure unintended effects.

    Intelligent, educated, articulate, experienced professional writers immediately realize that the “two-rules” rule is silly. They understand that, by always using the serial comma, they needn’t spend time deciding whether or not it’s necessary; it always works. Of course, my definition of a professional writer is one whose focus is on communication, not saving space.

  4. 1. Maeve, this subject of serial commas has been presented in a page RECENTLY that was written by one of the other authors. I do suggest that you read all of the articles in the past four months or so to avoid duplicating the material in any of them. The other writer came out 100 percent in favor of the “serial comma”.

    2. When it comes to the serial comma, the University of Cambridge English Department strongly favors using it ALWAYS.

    3. “When a comma means ‘and’.” We have a serious problem in that many writers use a comma to mean “and” and they also use a comma to mean “or”, and they do not distinguish between the two. I am not fooling around. Such things are even done by high school teachers in front of their students. I will give you an example:
    The writers write “New York, London” and half the time they mean:
    “New York or London” and half the time they mean “New York and London”. To the reader, he or she is left to simply GUESS which of these was meant.

    Such things even happen in mathematics classes, and students are taught to write things like X = 2, 3. Does this mean X = 2 or X = 3, or does it mean X = 2 and X = 3?

  5. Well said, Mr. Gaffney! I will gratefully “borrow” (i.e., repoach) your examples for deployment in the never-ending battle for clarity, consistency, and the serial comma.

  6. I mourn for the serial comma.

    For more than 25 years, I’ve stubbornly advised my corporate clients to forget the misinformation given them in grammar school (which is something of an oxymoron these days) and embrace the serial comma. Unfortunately, all my effort has been for naught. They have almost always chosen to drop it.

    I told them that not only is it simply proper English grammar, but their brands deserved a standard of discourse higher than that available from the APA. Alas, conformity with the rest of the comma-dropping world was more important than correctness and style.

    Not that I want to disparage APA style or ignore the reasons for it, but shouldn’t we all aspire to a higher standard? I will continue to advocate for and use the serial comma, no matter what. And I encourage all writers to do likewise, without fear and with pride.

  7. CMOS is a term from electronics engineering and computers and
    CMOS = “Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor”.
    Do not use this abbreviation for anything else.
    Please enter the 21st century and conform to modern times.
    CMOS is the dominent technology in computers, microprocessors, computer semiconductor memories, and CMOS as an abbreviation is just as important as IBM, AT&T, NATO, U.N., and U.K.

  8. Love the writerly passion around the serial comma! It’s fun to get a little more finger oil on our exclamation-point keys! As a professional writer for more than 30 years, I have used AP style without mishap. But I recently began living in a bi-comma-rel world since acquiring a new, serial-comma client. I have been surprised at how easily I seem to jump from one style to the other. Speaking of commas, see the instructions on the use of commas in strings of adjectives in one of my favorite Daily Writing Tips posts: the “royal order of adjectives” (Oct. 23, 2009).

  9. Matt Gafney Nov. 7,,,12:18 pm

    What a fantastic “comment” from Matt! Your sense of humor and your direct hits have us in stitches. Thank you.

    Having been told by Bantam that commas and footnotes (in a book on dreaming) must go because they “slow the reader down,” and similar comma-disparaging things by Harper on other dream books, I am looking forward to self publishing and doing exactly as I please with oversight from friends for clarity checks.

  10. I’m somewhat conflicted about the serial comma. It does often seem unnecessary and reduntant. But I am tempted to go with Matt Gaffney’s comment that if you DO use it all the time, no one can say you are wrong. In fact, that was my argument in favor of always treating *data* as a plural.

    I should say too that I bristle a bit at Cambridge being cited regarding what is and is not acceptable in American English, or the presumption of any “journalism” operation claiming authoriy over the language that journalism is so often the chief murderer of (AP, NYT, and NBC on pronunciation included). Also I have to point out that guides like APA, MLA, and ASA (commatized right there!) were developed for specific academic disciplines’ publication standards and shouldn’t automatically be transferred to Standard English.

  11. Quoting: “at Cambridge being cited regarding what is and is not acceptable in American English”

    No, that is not the point. The University of Cambridge recommended (and decreed) the use of the “serial comma” in ALL English.
    British, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamaican, South African, New Zealand, and so forth.

    If I had meant that Cambridge said something about American English, I would have said so. I didn’t say that, so I meant ALL English. I am bothered by people’s reading into what I wrote things that I didn’t write. D.A.W.

  12. That is MY point. No difference. Cambridge has no business decreeing anything for ALL English. For British English? I guess that is up to the British. For authority on SAE we will look to American sources. Preferably Midwestern ones.

  13. No, Mr. Argumentative Venqax

    The University of Cambridge recommended (and decreed) the use of the “serial comma” in ALL English.
    This means that the English department at the University of Cambridge AGREES with the LOGIC of the usual American way of writing commas.
    Why is it that you feel compelled with arguing with everyone, including your allies? That appears to be a serious problem to me.

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