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In general, you should place a comma before a conjunction only if it links two independent clauses.

Sally bit her brother, and she smacked him on the head.

Sally ran to the ice cream truck and hit the driver.

Sometimes, a comma should also be used for clarity.

He thought she had lit a candle and started to cry.

He thought she had lit a candle, and started to cry.

My question is, should a comma be used for clarity after a conjunction when it's preceded by a list?

Our afternoons were spent baking cookies or cupcakes or visiting the bakery.

Our afternoons were spent baking cookies or cupcakes, or visiting the bakery.

  • Welcome to EL&U. For the two forms in question (about the bakery), which do you think is clearer? What does your research show? Could you post any research? – rajah9 Nov 21 '16 at 13:46
  • @rajah9 I feel like the sentence would be unclear on the first pass, but comprehensible after a second. I tried looking up this exact issue, but I only get results for oxford commas and parenthetical comments. Researching clarity, I found this website, which gives an example where the verb usage is unclear. Yet I don't think the sentence I gave approaches such uncertainty. Other websites aren't as helpful, and give examples such as the one above. – Yang Yang Nov 21 '16 at 14:03
  • I agree. The first sentence is a "garden path" sentence (in which you think you're getting a list of three things, but have to reread it to see it's a list of two things with an alternate). – rajah9 Nov 21 '16 at 14:12
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The comma makes it clearer and helps avoid a garden path sentence. I would prefer the second sentence,

Our afternoons were spent baking cookies or cupcakes, or visiting the bakery.

A rewrite might make this clearer on first reading:

Our afternoons were spent either visiting the bakery or baking cookies and cupcakes.

In this rewrite, some parallelism is set up with the "either ... or" construct. The "cookies or cupcakes" was changed to "cookies and cupcakes"; this might not be as precise, but the reader would not be surprised if you only baked cookies that afternoon and skipped the cupcakes.

An even simpler rewrite:

Our afternoons were spent either visiting the bakery or baking at home.

If your desire is to have a list and not confuse it with the alternatives, here is yet another rewrite:

Our afternoons were spent either visiting the bakery or baking cookies, cupcakes, or pies.

(Whether you use this form of listing of the Oxford comma or not, please be consistent throughout your writing. But that is another debate.)

  • That's the first time I've heard of a garden sentence. Thank you so much! – Yang Yang Nov 21 '16 at 16:41

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