Of Lists, Commas, and Doubtful Parentage

 

One of my former jobs was to introduce new faculty members in a college newsletter. At least half of each introduction consisted of the person’s educational attainments, teaching awards, innumerable publications, and so forth. The dean insisted that the entire introduction be in narrative format, so I was constantly inventing new ways to say, “After earning his Master of Science degree at Prestigious University, he received a Ph.D. from Even More Prestigious University, where he continued to teach until joining the faculty of Backwater University,” and so forth.

When you are conveying data, as above, the data belong in a list — which may be in paragraph format or in the usual “list format,” one item under another. List format has the advantage of breaking up daunting blocks of text.

Either way, items in a list should be parallel (similar in type and construction).

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback riding, and making crank phone calls. [All items in the list are gerunds or gerund phrases.]

No: Our powerful software is flexible, intuitive, easy-to-use and integrates seamlessly with your other tools.

No: Artemis’s Labrador retriever, Margaret, had several jobs in the household:
1. She licked Artemis’s face when he was sad.
2. She brought Artemis his pipe and slippers every evening.
3. Barking at intruders.

No: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and the opera.

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and going to the opera.

 

 

About the Harvard Comma, or the Oxford Comma, or whatever you want to call the comma that belongs before the final item in a series

I’m for it. Associated Press style omits it. Here’s an example, followed by my rationale:

With Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole, and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
Without Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole and peanut butter on my eggs, please.

1. When you say it out loud, your voice pauses after guacamole. One of the purposes of a comma is to signal such a pause. Be courteous to your readers: Let them go with the flow of text that simulates natural speech.

2. Often the items in a series are phrases rather than single words. In complex sentences, omitting the final comma can muddy the meaning, causing the reader to reexamine the sentence or stop reading altogether. I know what you’re going to say: If the sentence is that complex, it should be recast. Here’s what I say: Go soak your head.

3. Even in short sentences or phrases, omitting the Harvard comma can be all but fatal, as in the famous (possibly apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Adapted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell
GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net

 

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One response

  1. […] The final sentence in the second paragraph above, however—the one that begins, “McCain cites numerous obstacles…”—contains a Problematic Parenthetical Phrase that demonstrates the utility of our old friend the Harvard comma. […]

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