Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Is a comma before “and” a serial crime?

Q: When I was in junior high in the ’40s, I was taught that an apostrophe in a word denoted a missing character and a comma in a series denoted a missing word. But I often see a comma before “and” in a series. Wouldn’t this mean “and and”?

A: We’ll discuss this comma business first. No, the comma doesn’t represent a missing or implied word.

Commas, like other marks of punctuation, bring meaning to strings of words, organizing them for readability and clarity.

As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it, commas “mark boundaries within a sentence”—boundaries between clauses and between words in a series.

When used in a series, commas separate each part from the next, as in these examples: “knives, forks, and spoons” … “eating, drinking, and making merry” … “rude, abrupt, and insensitive” … “quickly, politely, and accurately.”

Here we’ve used a comma before each “and.” This is sometimes called the “serial comma” or “Oxford comma,” and though it isn’t required, we think it’s a good idea.

As we’ve said before on our blog, a final comma before “and” can make a sentence clearer.

We used this sentence as an example of one that could use another comma for clarity: “The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

But your email made us curious. Apparently there was once a belief that each comma in a series represented a missing “and.”

In “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes,” a 1945 article in the journal American Speech, Steven T. Byington called this a “popular misconception.”

“There exists a widespread belief that one of the functions of the comma is to take the place of an omitted word, especially of an omitted coordinating conjunction,” Byington wrote.

This belief “has had a very perceptible influence” on the debate about the use of the final comma in a series like “A, B, and C,” he said. “A good-sized minority will mentally argue, ‘The purpose of the comma after A is to take the place of the omitted conjunction; consequently it is illogical to use it also after B, where the conjunction is expressed.’ ”

Newspapers may have encouraged the belief that a comma was equivalent to “and.”

In a 1940 article in American Speech, “The Serial Comma Before ‘And’ and ‘Or,’ ” R. J. McCutcheon wrote:

“An author informs me that in newspaper work he observed that the comma between the last two members of a series was habitually omitted, probably on the theory that the word and took its place and that the use of both the comma and the word and was redundant. Many syndicated articles in newspapers, however use both in series constructions.”

American Speech surveyed several US newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies on the subject for McCutcheon’s article.

It found, McCutcheon wrote, that “the ‘serial comma’ is omitted by the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, the New York Herald Tribune, Daily News, Sun, Times, and World-Telegram. The Boston Christian Science Monitor employs the comma.”

The magazines surveyed had differing opinions on the serial comma, as did book publishers.

In 1940, McCutcheon wrote, The Chicago Manual of Style recommended using the final serial comma. (It still does.)

“The University of Chicago Press, following its influential A Manual of Style, seems to be inflexible,” McCutcheon said. “They inform me that for material edited by them or bearing the press imprint they insist upon the comma before the final member of a series of three or more.”

Today the Chicago Manual, now in its 16th edition, says: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity.”

No one would dispute the presence of the last comma in this example from the Chicago Manual: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

As for the apostrophe, it signifies a missing letter or letters only when used in a contraction (like “it’s” for “it is,” or “tho’ ” for “though”).

Byington, in his American Speech article, wrote that in newspaper punctuation, “the latest aberrant tendency is that of using apostrophes before monosyllabic words which are falsely supposed to be abridgments of forms with prefixes.”

As examples he cites words written as ’round, ’though, ’way, and ’til on the assumption that they’re short for “around,” “although,” “away,” and “until.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed “until” & company on our blog.

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