January 13 2011

Items in a series

by Barbie in Writing

Happy 2011! We’re just two weeks into the New Year, and business is booming at Carpenter Doc. We’ve been working with several graduate students to prepare their theses and dissertations for defense later this semester. We’ve also taken on some new online editing tasks, which have kept us busy.

Today, we’re going to look at items in a series. How you format these items depends on the style guide you’re using. For example, AP Style does not use the serial comma — or the comma before a conjunction in a simple series. Academic style guides, including APA, MLA, and Chicago, stress the importance of the serial comma for clarity, however.

A common mistake we catch when listing items in a series is when a writer mistakenly lists two separate items like there are three — or more. For example:

  • The student can access help guides, writing tutorials, and discover new ways to format her paper.

Using the serial comma in this instance is incorrect because there are actually only two items, and those items are verb phrases. What we’re missing is a conjunction. Here’s the correct way to punctuate this sentence:

  • The student can access help guides and writing tutorials and discover new ways to format her paper.

Make sure your items in a series are parallel — all nouns, all verbs, or all gerunds, for example. If they aren’t, you might not have a series that warrants a serial comma, as in this example.