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EDIT: This question is not addressed by Oxford Comma Conventions, if I'm wrong, then please provide a link to a particular answer or comment that does address my question. (Such links appear in timestamps.)

In Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style, Jean Eggenschwiler & Emily Dotson Biggs advocate a serial comma in the following sentence:

He bought a dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator, and washer from the outlet.

Yet, the inclusion of a serial comma seems to introduce an ambiguity: It seems unclear whether all items (i.e., the dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator, and washer) were bought from the outlet, or just the washer. Would omitting the serial comma be better? I.e., does sentence

He bought a dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator and washer from the outlet.

improve upon the original?

marked as duplicate by jimm101, curiousdannii, Skooba, RaceYouAnytime, David Nov 22 '17 at 13:29

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • @jimm101, that doesn't seem to address the question. Can you be more precise? E.g., can you provide a link to a particular answer or comment that does address my question? (Such links appear in timestamps.) – user2768 Nov 8 '17 at 11:38
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    I don't see what ambiguity you remove by dropping that comma. You just create a new one, because it is now unclear whether all the items were bought from the outlet, or just the washer and the refrigerator. In all honesty, I do not think the ambiguity is really big in any case, I'd assume in this sentence that all items came from the same place, unless the sentence was spoken and the speaker used intonation to indicate that only the washer came from the outlet. – oerkelens Nov 8 '17 at 12:37
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    You need to explain why you think there's ambiguity: it seems perfectly clear, and perfectly consistent, with the final comma. – tchrist Nov 8 '17 at 14:17
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    @user2768 (1) We cannot prove the absence of an ambiguity (other than claiming that there is no ambiguity). If you think there is an ambiguity, then give us a concrete example. (2) This "serial comma" is known as the Oxford comma, and whether or not it should be used has been a topic of discussion for some time now. Some people like it, some people hate it, others are indifferent to it. There are specific cases where using it (or not using it) can introduce an ambiguity, but these ambiguities are contextual. Your example is not one of these ambiguous cases – Flater Nov 8 '17 at 15:37
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    You improvement has exactly the same ambiguity. Even with no commas... "He bought a microwave and a washer from the outlet" ... it is ambiguous whether both were bought from the outlet or only the washer. – GEdgar Nov 9 '17 at 17:35

It is just a question of the 'Oxford comma', and whether or not to add the last comma at the end of a list of items (before the 'and') is simply a matter of style.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma

Extract from that Wikipedia article:

According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, "commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence … Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press." Some use it only where necessary to avoid ambiguity, in contrast to such guides as Garner's Modern American Usage, which advocate its routine use to avoid ambiguity.

I don't use the Oxford comma myself, but the meaning of such a sentence cannot be misinterpreted in either case, and in your example it clearly means that all the items were bought from the same outlet.


I do believe you are over-thinking the issue. The sentence is fine as it is though, in some circles, some might take issue with your using a comma before "and". They feel the "and" represents the comma. To alleviate your angst, simply use use the indefinite article before each item: He bought a dishwasher, a microwave, a refrigerator and a washer from the outlet.

  • Your sentence seems to suggest that favouring the second of my sentences, i.e., removing the final comma. I'm not sure whether the three additional "a"s help. Actually, the addition of "a"s might well add further ambiguity. – user2768 Nov 8 '17 at 14:23
  • @user2768: "there is ambiguity" is so incredibly vague. Many commenters here agree that there is no ambiguity. If you think there is one, then explain it. – Flater Nov 8 '17 at 15:41
  • E.g., He bought a dishwasher. He bought a microwave. He bought a refrigerator. And He bought a washer from the outlet. Whereas, the singular "a" seems to suggest: He bought a dishwasher from the outlet. He bought a microwave from the outlet. He bought a refrigerator from the outlet. And he bought a washer from the outlet. (The latter seems to be what the "[m]any commenters here agree [with].") – user2768 Nov 8 '17 at 15:46

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