How to Use Commas as Part of a List

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Do you find commas confusing? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. Commas have a variety of functions yet many people are uncertain of how to use them. The main purpose of a comma is to clarify meaning by grouping together specific parts of the sentence. Each group within the sentence is separated by a comma which marks a slight break.

Over the year we’ll share tips and advice on the different uses of a comma. This week we’re starting with how to use commas as part of a list.

A comma should be used between the different parts of a list.

For example:

  • We need to buy potatoes, spinach, soap, and nail polish remover.
  • Next week I’m working on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Do I need to use a serial comma?

The last comma in a list (which appears before the word ‘and’) is called a serial or Oxford commas. Some people prefer not to use this comma unless the meaning of the sentence is affected.

For example:

  • My favourite foods are jacket potatoes, quiche, spaghetti and fish and chips.

In the above sentence (which doesn’t have a serial comma), it isn’t clear whether the person is listing ‘fish’ and ‘chips’ as separate types of favourite food or if they are listing ‘fish and chips’ in combination as a type of meal.

A serial comma would help clear things up:

  • My favourite foods are jacket potatoes, quiche, spaghetti, fish, and chips.

In this case, ‘fish’ is one type of favourite food and ‘chips’ are another.

  • My favourite foods are jacket potatoes, quiche, spaghetti, and fish and chips.

In this case, ‘fish and chips’ together are a type of favourite food.

What if I need to use commas within the separate parts of my list?

In some lists, you may need to use semi colons, as well as commas, to create a stronger break.

For example:

  • Each student requires two pairs of shoes, including wellington boots; a waterproof jacket, which should have a hood; a change of clothes; and sun cream which has a rating of at least SPF 30.
  • My family have had a very unlucky week: my mother’s purse was stolen, which means she had to cancel and replace all her cards; my father broke his leg a few days later and is now in a plaster cast; and my sister found out her cat, Michaela, had run away.

Where can I find other articles about punctuation?

Stay tuned for more advice on how to use commas. Have a great week!

31 Jan 2017
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