Commas Before and in a Series

Many of you no doubt saw the news last week that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined our ranks of fellow grammar watchdogs when he issued instructions to his staff on the proper use of commas. According to an internal State Department email given to CNN, “The Secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas in his paper (both their inclusion and omission).”

One example illustrated Secretary Pompeo’s preference for the use of the Oxford comma: “The wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread.” In honor of the Secretary, today we are including our article about commas in a series of three or more items that we first published on January 17, 2007.

We heard this news on CNN as reported by anchor Erica Hill in amused bewilderment that “this is about usage of commas”? Simultaneously, the crawler at the bottom of the screen ironically demonstrated the inclusion of an unnecessary comma: “EMAILS: POMPEO, STICKLER, FOR PROPER PUNCTUATION BY STAFF.” Unless Secretary Pompeo is joined in his campaign
for proper punctuation by someone named Stickler, we recommend omission of the second comma.

Adding to the irony, the New York Magazine‘s Daily Intelligencer led off its story by unknowingly demonstrating the unfortunate omission of a comma:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a problem with improper punctuation and his staff is making sure everyone at the State Department knows about it. [Where’s the comma before and separating the two independent clauses?]

We at GrammarBook.com welcome Secretary Pompeo’s focus on proper grammar and punctuation, and we welcome him to our unofficial society of grammar nerds.

Commas Before and in a Series

In American English usage, many writers and editors feel that a comma should precede and with three or more items in a series.

Example: I would like to order a salad, a sandwich, and dessert.

Newspapers and magazines do not generally use this rule as print space is too valuable to use on what might be considered extraneous punctuation. However, print publications will use the final comma before and if it is needed to avoid confusion.

Example: Her $10 million estate was split among her husband, daughter, son, and nephew. 

Omitting the comma after son would have led the reader to believe that the son and nephew had to split one-third of the estate (each receiving one-sixth) rather than understanding that each relative received one-fourth of the estate.

For easy reference, you can find our full list of comma rules and guidelines at GrammarBook.com.

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