Looking at what makes a list item in a list sentence.
Commas are also used to separate more complex 'list-like' items in a sentence.
Tom decided to take his backpack, enough clothes for 10 days, a copy of his passport, and a map
The government immediately declared a civil emergency, limited civilian access to the area, and ensured the immediate safety of the inhabitants
Commas and their influence on meaning
Sometimes your decision to include a comma, or not, can make a difference to how your reader understands your sentence.
The problem with commas and and:
Note that in complex lists it is sometimes necessary to place a comma before an and separating the last items if you want them to be treated as a separate idea or event. (This would seem to contradict what was said in Commas Lesson 1, but, sometimes the last two items need to be grouped together (no comma) and sometimes they need to be kept deliberately apart (so insert a comma). The video that goes with this lesson explains this a little, and we have extended this with our examples and explanation below.
Tom decided to take his backpack, enough clothes for 10 days, a copy of his passport, and a map..
Grammar nerds do not always agree about the rule, but your grammar choices are not about following rules!
Your choices are about understanding how texts are constructed to create meaning, and choosing structures that produce a text that is clear and umambiguous. Look at the difference in meaning between the following examples (adapted from Grammar-Monster.com) that occurs because of one little comma.
Jack left the pub with John (a policeman) and Simon.
Jack left the pub with John, (a policeman), and Simon.
Control over how you group your information
As the writer, you have control over how you group information by the choices you make with your commas.
Controlling information with commas:
You do not always have to separate items in a list with a comma. Sometimes you purposely do do so in order to keep blocks of text together when it makes up one idea. Notice how the comma placement changes each of the meanings below slightly:
Communication can also be non-verbal, with dancing, action, songs, and poetry.
Communication can also be non-verbal, with dancing action, songs, and poetry.
Communication can also be non-verbal, with dancing action songs, and poetry.
Communication can also be non-verbal, with dancing action songs and poetry.
The point here is that you control how the information in your text is grouped by the choices you make with your commas.
Instructions: Hover or tap the questions below to see the reason for the answers given in the quiz.
1. Select the most accurate use of commas
Being a good driver involves...
...awareness of your position on the road, predicting what others will do, fast decision-making and reacting ✔
Why: Comma placement here separates the items in a way that makes sense. It would be possible in some sentences to change the meaning of the sentence by shifting the placement of the commas, as exemplified by the title of the famous punctuation book: Eats, shoots and leaves
2. Rank the use of commas from most accurate to least
Please bring with you on the field trip...
Most accurate: ...something to write with, your camera, lunch, and warm clothes ✔
or ...something to write with, your camera, lunch and warm clothes ✔
Why: We like the top answer as the most accurate because the final comma keeps the lunch separate from the warm clothes. We know that grammarians do not always agree about this, and might choose the option without the comma after the word 'lunch'.
3. 1) light weight 2) free standing 3) wood burning
We have replaced our open fireplace with a ________________________ fire box.
light weight, free standing, wood burning ✔
Why: No comma after the final item in a list of adjectives.