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Comma Confusion: Series Containing Conjunctions


Thank you for joining me for another installment in the Comma Confusion Series!

It's no wonder commas are so confusing―there are an endless number of rules for using them. The following guidelines are based on those found in the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style

Comma Placement in a Series Containing Conjunctions
This week we'll discuss how to properly place commas in a series containing several conjunctions. We covered a related topic, the "serial comma," several months ago, so you may want to take a few moments to review the following issue from the Grammar Tips & Tidbits Archive: Serial Commas.

Now that you have a good handle on the serial comma, let's clear up another source of comma confusion.

The elements in a series are typically separated by commas, but for stylistic purposes, there are times when you may wish to use conjunctions (such as and or or) to separate the elements. When all the elements in a series are separated by conjunctions, commas are not necessary.


    Correct: Will you be going to the party with Chris, Mike, or Jacob?
  Correct: Will you be going to the party with Chris or Mike or Jacob? 
  Incorrect: Will you be going to the party with Chris, or Mike, or Jacob?
  Correct: Kelly wants a piece of pie, cake, and cobbler.
  Correct: Kelly wants a piece of pie and cake and cobbler.
  Incorrect: Kelly wants a piece of pie, and cake, and cobbler.

Exception: If the elements in a series are long, commas may be inserted between them for ease of reading.

    Example:  For dinner tonight, would you rather eat at our favorite five-star restaurant downtown, or at the new deli around the corner, or at Sharon and Jason's house in Richwood?

Note: Semicolons can be used to separate the elements in a series when the elements contain internal punctuation or are very long and complex. More on this in a future issue of Grammar Tips & Tidbits!

To read additional issues in the Comma Confusion Series, see the Grammar Tips & Tidbits Archive.

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1. University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed.  
        (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 245.