When to Use a Final Comma in a List

One of the tricky questions about comma usage is how to use commas in a list of items.

For example, should it be:

I love to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.    OR    I love to eat apples, oranges and bananas.   ???

Technically, both versions are correct. But I prefer the second. I try to make my writing as clear, simple and elegant as possible, and part of my strategy is to eliminate anything unnecessary. The final comma in a simple list is unnecessary, so I leave it out.

Sometimes, though, you need to add the final comma to preserve your meaning. Here’s an example I love from Ben Yagoda’s book How to Not Write Bad (the title is a joke, by the way, to demonstrate how jarring bad writing can be).

Imagine a student writing about what he is grateful for. Yagoda shows how the final comma in a list is sometimes not superfluous. There’s a big difference between:

I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.    AND    I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

In the first statement, the student is clearly listing three things for which he is thankful. In the second, he appears to be claiming he’s the offspring of Ayn Rand and God. That final comma sometimes makes a crucial difference in meaning.

You often also  use a final comma in a list of items when the items are longer. Here’s an example:

He returned many items from the storeroom to  their original owners, including a bicycle once ridden by Joe Clark, a colourful kite featured in a film about South Africa, and a white ribbon used to alert troops in World War Two to the surrender of a village.

The final comma improves readability in cases like this.

So, sometimes the final comma is needed. Other times you can use it or not. The most important thing is to keep your use consistent throughout your document. So if you use the final comma in a short list once, use it every time. Or if you plan to leave it out of a short list, make sure you leave it out every time. You can make an exception and plop a comma in there, though, whenever it improves readability or is needed to shape the meaning.

Quick Fixes for Conciseness (Examples)

One of my recent posts introduced the concept of writing “concisely,” meaning eliminating unnecessary words.

Here are a few more examples.

1] Not concise (some people say “wordy”):  this research sheds some light on

Quick fix:  this research illuminates

The word “illuminates” is powerful and precise and replaces the four words “sheds some light on.”

2] Not concise:   she researches various types of categories of minerals

Quick fix:  she researches categories of minerals

The words “various types of” add no additional meaning to “categories” and so should be deleted.

3] Not concise:  they sat in a circular formation

Quick fix:  they sat in a circle

Isn’t a “circular formation” just a “circle”?

4] Not concise:  the paper puts the emphasis on

Quick fix:  the paper emphasizes

Same meaning, 50% fewer words.

If you have interesting examples of ways you’ve made your own writing more concise, please share them as a comment!

Conciseness

The best academic writing provides the most information with the fewest words. This is called being “concise.”

Think of being concise as eliminating unnecessary words.

Sometimes you do this naturally. You’d almost certainly never say this: “The sweater of Brenda is red.” [6 words]

Instead, you’d express the same idea more concisely: “Brenda’s sweater is red.” [4 words]

Although we all speak concisely at times, most writers could trim many words from their writing while preserving the meaning. Concise writing feels much sleeker and effective to readers.

But keep in mind that writing concisely means eliminating UNNECESSARY words. Writing concisely does not mean every sentence must be as short as possible. Sometimes extra words are useful. Here’s a great example. The most famous writing manual written in English is called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.  In Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, Pinker quotes White, a student of Strunk’s, talking about Strunk’s lecture style. According to White, Strunk once, with great pomp and ceremony, iterated his perspective on conciseness:

“Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

It’s funny at first, because nothing seems less concise than saying the exact same thing three times. But I wouldn’t suggest leaving out a single syllable. None of those words are unnecessary, because they make his utterance, through their sheer humorous irony, unforgettable.

My Favorite Ambiguity

My previous post highlighted the importance of avoiding ambiguity in your communication.

[Notice that above I could have said, “My previous post was about….”  Instead, I replaced “was about” with one descriptive and powerful word: “highlighted.”]

I want to share my all-time favorite ambiguity. A classmate of mine in university wrote this in a creative non-fiction assignment. He was writing about the interaction between a friend of his and the friend’s mentor. Here’s what he wrote:

“He said, ‘Thank you very much, professor,’ and stroked his beard.”

Can you detect the ambiguity?

It makes me laugh every time. Readers don’t know whether the student was stroking his own beard or the professor’s beard!

I probably don’t need to write a future post explaining that it is not appropriate to express gratitude to a professor by stroking his beard.

Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security [while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.