Re: Comma, Comma, Comma (Should we or Shouldn't we)

Subject: Re: Comma, Comma, Comma (Should we or Shouldn't we)
From: Bonnie Nestor <mnj -at- ORNL -dot- GOV>
Date: Mon, 8 May 1995 09:23:27 -0400

In article <Pine -dot- 3 -dot- 89 -dot- 9505021843 -dot- A16410-0100000 -at- ios -dot- com>, charles desaro
<soacon -at- ios -dot- com> wrote:

> Which sentence is correct, relative to the comma:

> The Tech Writer was bright, articulate, knowledgeable, and computer literate.
> or
> The Tech Writer was bright, articulate, knowledgeable and computer literate.

You're talking about the dreaded serial or series comma. Opinion is
divided; I side with the "yes, you should" folks. Here are a couple of
references that include some explanation.

Claire Kehrwald Cook, _Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing_,
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1985, pp. 110-111:

Most magazines and newspapers, in keeping with the trend toward minimal
punctuation, do not use a comma before the final item in a series, but
many writers on style and usage consider that comma essential. Follett
points out the fallacy in regarding it as superfluous: a conjunction,
which connects, cannot do the job of a comma, which separates.

Robert A. Day, _Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other
Professionals_, Oryx Press, Phoenix, Arizona, 1992, pp. 70-71:

Three or more words or groups of words in a series are separated by commas.

Example: She published novels, poems, and short stories.
Example: His books were admired by every Tom, Dick, and Mary.

The big argument is whether a comma should be used before the "and" (or
"or") in the series. Here is another rule. _Always_ use the comma before
the "and." _It is never wrong_. People who never use the series comma, or
who use it only selectively, will write many sentences that are hard to
read and a few that are incomprehensible. If you use these commas to
separate the three parts of a series, you will never write a sentence like
this:

Example: He had a large head, a thick chest holding a strong heart and big feet.

The only way to get the feet out of that poor guy's chest is to put a
comma before the "and."

Example: The system consists of an engine, tubing to bring fuel to the
cylinders and associated mounting bolts.

This sentence is incomprehensible, like many constructed by people who
fail to use serial commas. Possibly, the tubing brings fuel to the
mounting bolts. (If so, the sentence would be improved by putting an "and"
before "tubing.") More likely, the tubing takes fuel to the cylinders and
_not_ to the bolts. If so, a comma intelligently placed after "cylinders"
clears up all confusion.

Bonnie Nestor
mnj -at- ornl -dot- gov

DISCLAIMER: I work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for Martin Marietta Energy
Systems, Inc., which is under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy -- but
I don't speak for any of them, and they return the favor.


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