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I'm editing some engineering documentation in Australia, and I'd like to say:

The tests shall: 1) verify connectivity, 2) test (performance and endurance) by ...

The tests shall verify connectivity, and test performance and endurance by ...

Should I be using a serial comma to clarify grouping?

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The serial comma is never used in a list of only two items. –  RegDwigнt Apr 10 '12 at 7:38
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

While a serial comma may clarify grouping, it probably is not enough by itself to ensure a binding specification or a clear specification. That is, if you are writing specifications (as suggested by phrase "The tests shall..."), do not depend on commas, which even when used perfectly may be misinterpreted by some readers. Instead, use a labeled or bulleted list, as for example:

The tests shall:
a. verify connectivity,
b. test performance,
c. test endurance by...

If, on the other hand, you are writing an informal description of a process, proper use of commas may allow brief, understandable prose, in contrast to bulky, understandable lists.

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Thank you for your answer, I'll definitely be coming here again with my thesis upcoming. The rest of the section on which I am working is written in a more informal style, therefore a labelled list will probably look a bit out of place. I like your point about separating b and c - I think I'll use The tests shall verify connectivity, measure performance and test endurance by..., with your approval? –  Alex L Apr 10 '12 at 6:26
@Alex: Be careful about coming back with your thesis upcoming. Folks don't mind answering general questions about English, but can get rather curt if you're asking us to proofread. Make sure you're familiar with the faq, and you ask questions in a general enough sense that they will be of interest to others in the community. With that out of the way, welcome. –  J.R. Apr 10 '12 at 9:30
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I think this would be a really good use of an Oxford comma. There is no doubt that the text is less readable without it.

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The tests shall verify connectivity, measure performance and test endurance by...

Is one set of tests designed to meet all three goals? Or are some tests geared toward verifying connectivity, while others measure performance, and still others test endurance?

I don't know what comes after the ellipsis, but this looks like it could be the start of a rather confusing sentence. Maybe you're trying to convey too much information at once?

You might allieviate this problem by breaking it into multiple sentences:

The goals of the testing are threefold: verify connectivity, measure performance, and test endurance. Connectivity is tested by...

(depending on what else you're saying, and how the test plan is organized)

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Thank you for your advice and your welcome! The sentence is intentionally full of information, in context it makes sense (at least to me). I hope my question wasn't too specific - I had a (albeit quick) look for similar questions that involved list grouping but couldn't find anything helpful. I quite like the solution of avoiding grouping by making it a single list - I think it improves understandability. –  Alex L Apr 10 '12 at 16:26
@Alex: De nada. It's good to know that we, as a community, could help you out. :^) –  J.R. Apr 10 '12 at 16:33
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