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Say I have the following sentence:

I went to the store to buy eggs, regular, chocolate and soy milk, apples, and bread.

There are two and clauses here, one that describes the kinds of milk I was buying, and one that describes the other groceries.

One option would be:

I went to the store to buy eggs, regular milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, apples, and bread.

But that seems redundant and wordy. What's best? A big problem with the first one is that it's not immediately clear whether I mean chocolate or chocolate milk, since chocolate can be either a noun or an adjective in this case.

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  • Define "best". Both are perfectly grammatical, understandable, and ubiquitous. – RegDwigнt Oct 21 '13 at 21:05
  • @RegDwigнt I added a sentence to explain why the first one is not understandable. – durron597 Oct 21 '13 at 21:06
  • @TaliaFord the first one isn't a duplicate because that sentence doesn't have three or more elements in both the outer list and the inner list. The second one got closed for being off topic, so isn't really helpful. The third one is even less helpful than the first two. – durron597 Oct 21 '13 at 21:09
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    Thanks for the edit. The first can be ambiguous, yes, and the second one is wordy, yes. You still haven't quite defined "best", though. I mean, you want to avoid the ambiguity, go ahead and avoid it and use the second variant. You prefer to avoid the wordiness, avoid the wordiness by using the first one. And if you want to avoid both — which is what I suppose you might regard as "best" —, suit yourself with semicolons. (I kind of feel compelled to add, though, that every second sentence we produce is too wordy and ambiguous, so if your sentence is just one of these things, that's a birdie.) – RegDwigнt Oct 21 '13 at 21:22
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Parallel construction is good for simplifying sentences for your audience:

I went to the store to buy regular [milk], chocolate [milk], and soy milk.

Here, the parallel construction removes the repeated word milk, simplifying communication and making it more pleasing to the ear. Unfortunately, as you've noted, it can become awkward when not all of the elements of the sentence fit into the parallel structure. It's not too bad if you keep the parallel elements together at the beginning of the list:

I went to the store to buy regular, chocolate, and soy milk, eggs, apples, and bread.

That's still fairly easy to understand, and it keeps people from mis-parsing the list as “eggs milk, . . . and soy milk.” However, in more complex constructions, you may simply want to keep all words for clarity. You can break up the repeated words to help reduce the monotony:

I went to the store to buy eggs, milk, bread, apples, chocolate milk, and soy milk.

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One option is not to write your sentence, and instead to write a different sentence. Of course, that's the option you already pointed out:

I went to the store to buy eggs, regular milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, apples, and bread.

And WS2's answer gives another sentence you could say instead. But if you want to stick to your original sentence, you have several options:

  1. Leave it the way it is. It's understandable, but it requires effort on the part of the reader. It's not a good sentence, but it's not ungrammatical.
  2. Use semicolons as well as commas:

    I went to the store to buy: eggs; regular, chocolate and soy milk; apples; and bread.

    This doesn't seem great stylistically, but it has the advantage of being readily comprehensible. If you want to stick with convention, this may be the best choice.

  3. Add parentheses:

    I went to the store to buy eggs, (regular, chocolate and soy) milk, apples, and bread.

    This is also not great stylistically, but I think it's comprehensible. However, some people might complain that that's Not What Parentheses are For.

  4. Leave out the interior comma(s):

    I went to the store to buy eggs, regular chocolate and soy milk, apples, and bread.

    This has the advantage of being closer to how I'd actually say it out loud, with pauses where the commas are and no pauses where they aren't. I also think it's comprehensible, but it's got two disadvantages: someone might read regular as modifying chocolate, and leaving out the comma is unconventional at best.

None of these options seem all that great to me. You may want to reconsider writing this sentence.

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    On #3, you could put the parenthetical clarification after the word "milk," instead of before: I went to the store to buy eggs, milk (regular, chocolate, and soy), apples, and bread. I think your last option (a rewrite) may be the best option of all, though. Two sentences wouldn't hurt: I went to the store to by eggs, apples, and bread. I also bought three kinds of milk: regular, chocolate, and soy. – J.R. Oct 22 '13 at 0:19
  • @J.R. I agree that that's a good option, but it's falls under the category of writing a different sentence. Since WS2 already covered that possibility, I was trying to focus on how you could write this particular sentence without changes. – snailcar Oct 22 '13 at 7:46
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I would say 'I went to the shop to buy eggs, milk (regular, chocolate and soy), some apples and bread.' The introduction of the word 'some' is to help separate the 'nested' list from the main items.

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Best? It depends on your priorities. For maximum readability and minimum confusion, something like this is best:

I went to the store to buy:

  • eggs
  • milk:
    • regular
    • chocolate
    • soy
  • apples
  • bread
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You could easily increase clarity by changing the order of the items, putting the milk types at the end.

I went to the store to by eggs, bread, apples, and regular, chocolate, and soy milk.

Now "regular" clearly does not modify one of the non milk items, and it is fairly obvious that "chocolate" is a modifier rather than a noun.

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