Which version is correct?

Pieces of gold, silver or black metal, or sometimes all three, are used.

Pieces of gold, silver or black metal, or sometimes all three are used.

So this is actually from a past SAT exam, and the answer key I believe gives the second choice to be correct. I however think it is the first choice, since if we remove the supporting clause "or sometimes all three", the sentence still stands correct as it is.

  • That's an awkward sentence to commatize. – Hot Licks Dec 22 '16 at 22:22
  • Welcome to Stack Exchange ELU! More context and information is needed to help you. What is the setting? Do you prefer to use the Oxford Comma? Please update the post with information about the context, your desires, what you think it should be, and why. – Hank Dec 22 '16 at 22:22
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    I would have said that the sentence should be rewritten. – Hot Licks Dec 22 '16 at 22:26
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    ... Obviously, the examiners think that one version (the second) is correct and the other incorrect. I'd personally use "Pieces of gold, silver, or black metal – or sometimes all three – are used." I'd mark the second answer incorrect, but doubtless some punctuation pundit can dredge up a 'rule' justifying it. But there isn't a punctuation czar. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 22 '16 at 22:41
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    @EdwinAshworth - Yep. The absence, in the original, of a comma after "silver" is problematic in itself, as it leads to confusion as to whether the choice is between the three, or between "gold" and "silver or black metal". The comma is of course omitted based on a "rule" (likely hearkening back to the 50s), but such rules even less reliable than "I before E except after C". – Hot Licks Dec 22 '16 at 22:57

The current standard for education purposes, what a high school English grammar book would teach in the US, is use of the Oxford comma. [S]ilver or black metal is actually a single entity in the series. [S]ometimes all three is the third member of the series with gold being the first member.

This is why the SAT had the second answer. I taught SAT for a review company for a few years; the Oxford comma is a frequent topic, and since it usually is skipped in newspaper, even in the US, it is just one of their "tricks."

  • Silver or black metal are not two separate pieces of the series but acting as a single entity. It's confusing because it's not including gold as a "metal." What you are suggesting is: Pieces of gold, silver, or black metal--or sometimes all three--are used. Norice in this case metal should be plural. – Stu W Dec 23 '16 at 9:17
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    But doesn't "all three" mean that gold, silver or black metal has to be interpreted as a three-element list? – Peter Shor Dec 23 '16 at 13:06
  • No. Sometimes all three is the third element based on the singularity of metal. It's typical SAT stuff. So the passage is actually stating that usually two metals: gold and either black or silver metal, but sometimes all three are utilized. – Stu W Dec 23 '16 at 14:53
  • I know, it's confusing. This question wouldn't make it onto an actual SAT because of the poor construction of the sentence. Place the word metal after gold and metals after three and it makes more sense what the writers were going for. Pieces of gold metal, silver or black metal, or sometimes all three metals are used. – Stu W Dec 23 '16 at 15:13

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