Thursday, April 06, 2006

Commas and "Ands"

I was taught in the 2nd grade that a list has a comma between all items, even if there is an "and" between two of them. For example:

Sue Thompson, Jane, Dick Hall, and I went to the store to buy some condoms to have an orgy.

The comma between Dick and I clarifies that "Dick" is an independent item from "I." Each comma sets up the next item in the list, visibly separating each of them. Removing the comma between the last two items renders:

Sue Thompson, Jane, Dick Hall and I

The absence of the comma eliminates a visible barrier between "Dick Hall and I" and makes dividing the two items difficult.

People argue in favor of dropping the last comma because the commas in the list supposedly represent little "ands." This is total bullshit. The commas act as a divider between items, represented in spoken language with short pauses. It is completely incorrect to say:

Sue Thompson and Jane and Dick Hall and I

Now, the real trouble comes in when you have associated items. For example, consider this list:

Joe and Tina, Greg and Sophie, Greg, and Lisa

Because of the formatting of this list, it is obvious that "Joe and Tina" and "Greg and Sophie" have some distinct binding relationship--it is expected that they some how remain together and are each considered as one item in the list. Now, consider without the comma:

Joe and Tina, Greg and Sophie, Greg and Lisa

In this case, it is impossible to differentiate that Greg and Lisa are, in fact, not a single item, thereby destroying the meaning of the entire phrase.

The commas in lists are important. Dropping the comma before the conjunction of a list is confusing, ignorant, and irritating as hell. Putting a comma should be the rule, but until someone has the balls to lay to the righteous way, the English language will be shrouded in ambiguity.

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