Does a comma mean "and" when used to separate items in a list?

  • If I ask you “Do you want tea, coffee, juice or hot chocolate?” do you assume your choices are (tea and coffee and juice) or (hot chocolate)? If not, why do you assume the comma means and? – oerkelens Jan 9 '15 at 8:02
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    or, in other words........ no – Brian Hitchcock Jan 9 '15 at 8:09
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    But if you say "Do you want eggs, chips, sausage and beans?", then the comma does imply "and". In such lists, the comma is equivalent to either the "and" or "or" that separates the last two things in the list. – Simon B Jan 9 '15 at 8:31
  • No-one mention an Oxford Comma, whatever you do! – Ronan Jan 9 '15 at 9:30
  • I second Simon B's answer, and will add this: commas between adjectives do imply the word "and" unless "or" is stated explicitly, e.g. "the fat, jolly, red-cheeked elf" (the elf is fat and jolly and red-cheeked). – William Bloom Jan 9 '15 at 9:51

When used in a list, it means that you are about to state a further element of the list.

The conjunction and, or or nor also separate elements of the list whether following a comma or not.

It's reasonable enough to say that the comma is a bit like another instance of whatever that conjunction is (and, or, nor).

However, saying "a comma indicates the conjunction 'and'" implies that it would be entirely equivalent if we repeated the conjunction, and even after correcting for the fact that it could be or or nor, this isn't quite correct.

Generally we don't include such extra conjunctions, but we sometimes do for effect, which is called polysyndeton. (A list that deliberately has no conjunction at all is in contrast, asyndeton). Polysyndeton can give a more poetic rhythm, or convey a variety of impressions from solemn to exuberant, or a sense of being overwhelmed by the number of items in the list. Consider:

… So we'll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; — Shakespare, "King Lear" Act V scene iii.

Here the inclusion of the repeated ands helps maintain the sense of a list despite the elements being so heterogeneous. In comparison "…we'll live, pray, sing, tell old tales, laugh at gilded butterflies, hear poor rogues talk of court news" loses the sense of it being a list at all, because of the difference between the elements.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth! — Kipling, "The Ballad of East and West".

Here the inclusion of the additional nor serves three functions.

  1. It stamps out the rhythm of the poem.

  2. It helps marks the list as being of two parts; that {East, West} are one list and {Border, Breed, Birth} another list, though those two lists are then combined into another list.

  3. It helps convey the sense of there being many factors considered (and in this case then dismissed).

Again, even if we ignore the matter of rhythm as not being about meaning, "there is neither East, West, Border, Breed, nor Birth" does not convey the same thing. In particular there's more of a sense of the list being small and exhaustive rather than large and inclusive of other elements not yet included.

In looking at these two cases where the more unusual decision of repeating the conjunction was used, and seeing how the have a different effect than the usual use of several commas and a single conjunction, we can see that it's not quite correct to say that the comma "means and" here. It's meaning is close, but not quite the same.

  • so.. yes or no? – caub Jan 20 '17 at 17:47
  • @caub If you want a yes or no answer, flip a coin. – Jon Hanna Jan 20 '17 at 17:50
  • Heh,someone just down-voted me because I refused to give @caub an inadequate answer. – Jon Hanna Jan 21 '17 at 5:44

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