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Research completed: * CMS 16th Edition

How would I correctly punctuate an adverb that immediately proceeds from a serial comma? For example, "The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers, and, optionally, vegetable stock."

Should optionally be enclosed in commas? I once read that one shouldn't use a comma immediately after a coordinating conjunction, even if it's an adverb phrase that follows. So, I'm wondering if this would apply here also. For example, "The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers, and optionally, vegetable stock."

Thank you kindly for your help :D

  • What you have given as example at the end looks right. There is another rule that one can find a lot of places in a sentence / para where commas could be used, but that will make it too many. – Ram Pillai Jan 2 at 16:50
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    Every time you use a comma, you jerk the intonation up and down. If you do this on every syllable it gets very jerky. So pick your comma spots carefully, and make sure you want your readers to HEAR each one. If you don't want them jigged around right there, don't insert it. – John Lawler Jan 2 at 17:32
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    I'd go with << "The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers, and optionally vegetable stock." >> It causes no confusion to omit the commas, and as J Lawler says gives a smoother ride. However, I'd include them in "The musketeers have been sometimes lampooned in historical anecdotes and, rarely, missed". – Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 at 20:05
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    @parergon - Your question raises two issues: the use of the Oxford comma and whether parentheses (==brackets) are a useful to assist with the readability of the sentence. I've provided a long answer below. In short, though, I would opt for either "The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and, optionally, vegetable stock." or "The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and (optionally) vegetable stock." – TechnoCat Feb 2 at 12:16
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TL;DR

My short answer? Punctuate your sentence in one of the following two ways:

"The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and, optionally, vegetable stock."

"The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and (optionally) vegetable stock."

THE LONG & BORING ANSWER

To be really boring, your question raises two technical issues:

  • the comma after "crackers" - which is an example of the "Oxford comma" rather than the "serial comma"; and
  • how to treat the "optionally".

Let's go through these one by one.

THE OXFORD COMMA

A comma prior to the "and" in a list of items is known as an Oxford comma. It is defined as:

"a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect )."

Source: https://www.lexico.com/definition/oxford_comma

The appropriateness of an Oxford comma is a the subject of considerable debate. Some people love Oxford commas; some people hate them. (I'm the latter camp, by the way - I detest them! - perhaps because of my British education.)

If you look through a set of published books and journals you will notice that majority of publications and authors do NOT use the Oxford comma. For instance, the highly regarded economics journal, The Economist, publishes a guide called The Economist Style Guide, which is very widely used in the business world internationally. A copy of the style guide is freely available at https://bordeure.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/the-economist-style-guide.pdf.

On page 145 of the Guide (yep, it's really long!), you will see:

"The use of a comma before the final and in a list is called the serial or Oxford comma: eggs, bacon, potatoes, and cheese.

Most American writers and publishers use the serial comma; most British writers and publishers use the serial comma only when necessary to avoid ambiguity: eggs, bacon, potatoes and cheese but The musicals were by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, and Lerner and Lowe.

Your sentence currently uses the Oxford comma.

COMMAS VS BRACKETS: THE WORD "OPTIONAL" IN YOUR SENTENCE

Currently you punctuate your sentence only with commas. While that is fine, there are advantages to using other punctuation marks - for instance, parentheses (commonly called "brackets" in some countries). The advantage of having two types of punctuation marks is the parsing is a lot easier for the reader.

CONCLUSION

If I were writing your sentence, I would:

  • I'd get rid of the Oxford comma - which interferes with the word "optional"; and

  • I'd probably also use brackets for the optional.

The sentence would then be written in either of the following two ways.

"The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and, optionally, vegetable stock."

Or:

"The contents of your bag will include cheese, crackers and (optionally) vegetable stock."

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"The contents of your bag will include: cheese; crackers; and, optionally, vegetable stock."

Or

"The contents of your bag will include: cheese; crackers; and, (optionally) vegetable stock."

| improve this answer | |

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