The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #104248   Message #2144186
Posted By: Uncle_DaveO
08-Sep-07 - 05:33 PM
Thread Name: BS: What are the absolutes of good writing?
Subject: RE: BS: What are the absolutes of good writing?
Slag asked:

Question: If a comma links a related series of words or short phrases, isn't it redundant to put a comma before the "and" in the penultimate item? For example, "-----, -----, -----, and -----." I believe the correct punctuation should be "-----, -----, ----- and -----." Any thoughts on that one?

Slag, style manuals vary (and argue vehemently) on this. I was taught in grade school, as I suppose you were, to omit that comma, but I have been converted to think that it's better to put the comma before the "and" except in certain special cases.

Let's put a series sentence down both ways, and see if there is or at least could be a difference in meaning:

"The parking lot contained about a hundred VW beetles, painted differently: red, mustard green, blue, and yellow."
    or
"The parking lot contained about a hundred VW beetles, painted differently: red, mustard green, blue and yellow."

Now, can you tell me about that second example? Were the VWs all single colors, or was one or more of them painted two-tone? If the practice is to place a comma before "and" in a series, the absence of the comma is significant, and there's at least one two-tone VW there. If the practice is always to leave out the last comma, there's no way to tell the function of the word "and".

One might go further with the VW paint scheme list:
"The parking lot contained about a hundred VW beetles, painted differently: shocking pink, stripes and polka dots, red, Kelly green, black, mustard green, waving American flags, and blue and yellow."
In such a listing, the presence or absence of the comma is even more clearly significant.

Additionally, I've read somewhere in a book on the English language and its development (but don't ask me where, because I've forgotten) that the "and" is not historically a substitute for a comma, as I think is implied in your question.

Dave Oesterreich