Grammar Commas Before and in a Series |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

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 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

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

15 responses to “Commas Before and in a Series”

  1. Peggy says:

    “…daughter, son and nephew.” Could it also lead one to believe the son and nephew are the same person? The American family.

  2. Brenda Russell says:

    Wow! Adding even more irony …
    “Adding to the irony, the New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, led off its story …”

    As I learned grammar and punctuation over 40 years ago, that second comma is egregiously extraneous.

  3. Ravi Bedi says:

    Please throw some light on the use of a comma in a speech or dialogue.

  4. Roy Dullum says:

    Can you please, please make your articles printable?

  5. PJ says:

    Oxford commas should always be used to affirmatively define the relationship between the last two items in a list, rather than assuming the reader will know. The writer either means that the last two items represent a single “thing” (cookies and creme, an ice cream flavor) or separate “things” (cookies, and creme). The writer should always use the comma for clarity. How can the writer presume to know the capability and understanding of the reader? Readers may or may not be able to discern whether the items are related or not. The writer should never assume. Unfortunately, the AP style guide defines it as optional, which is why we rarely see used in newspapers; the one place where it should be mandatory, for clarity.

  6. Bill says:

    I have a question regarding the “Commas and Periods” Quiz 1, on page 147 of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. In this quiz, sentence #2 reads:
    “Yes,” Ting said “I did see the baby panda at the zoo today.”

    The answer key places a comma after “said.” However, I wonder whether “‘Yes,’ Ting said” constitutes an independent clause (ie, “Ting said yes”), and whether a semicolon might be more appropriate in this instance.

  7. Julie Panasik says:

    Please explain why there is a comma in the sentence below:
    After he walked all the way home, he shut the door.
    Thank you.

  8. Michael Garcia says:

    I’ve been wondering why the commas were placed on the following sentence:

    “By then the pavement was moving beneath him, slow at first, then faster and faster.”

    My theory is that the commas are placed there because it is a series of consecutive events…? Do you have any information about this? I mean, I’ve usually seen commas in a series with just one word in between commas (e.g., I like ice cream, milk, and cereal).

    But the quoted text still seems to place commas in consecutive events as if it was a rule (One that I’m not familiar with)

    Would you be so kind to help me?

    P.S. I got your book bought me some quizzes; they’re great!

    • The phrase “slow at first” interrupts the sentence flow and causes a natural pause. Our Rule 7b of Commas reads “Use commas to set off expressions that interrupt the sentence flow (nevertheless, after all, by the way, on the other hand, however, etc.).”

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