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Question

Can I use a comma (,) before an ampersand (&)? If no, then why not?

Example

The same products attracted all European countries to India: spices, silk, & cotton.

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  • 3
    We usually write the word 'and' in full, rather than use an ampersand, in anything more formal than the most terse of short notes. I note that the 'M&S' web site has this at the bottom '© 2021 Marks and Spencer plc' - no ampersand, and definitely no apostrophe. Apr 27 at 10:57
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    MLA style guide: Shelley bought all the vintage Earth, Wind & Fire albums she found at the yard sale Ampersands belong to design typography (like book covers) and generally should be avoided in prose. When referencing titles of works in prose, most publishers will convert an ampersand found on a book cover or title page to and, adding a serial comma if needed. The Chicago Manual of Style likewise. Apr 27 at 11:02
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    The only time I use an ampersand in text is when I am writing a name (e.g., of a book, a store, an investment firm, a musical group, a railroad, etc.) that uses it in the original. In all other cases, I spell out the word and. Apr 27 at 11:30
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    You wouldn't use an ampersand here, so the concern evaporates. Apr 27 at 12:54
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    I agree with @FeliniusRex. One would never employ an ampersand in that sentence, not in any kind of formal communication or in any formal context. If you're writing informally or casually, like jotting down some notes, then it doesn't really matter what you do, so write it however you feel like. Apr 27 at 22:55
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By way of supplementing Mari-Lou A's answer, I note that Chicago Manual of Style is by no means alone in asserting that there should be no comma before an ampersand when one appears before the last item in a series. Here are the guidelines that various style manuals provide on this point.

From University of Chicago, Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010):

6.21 Omitting serial commas before ampersands. When an ampersand is used instead of the word and (as in company names), the serial comma is omitted.

Winken, Blinken & Nod is a purveyor of nightwear.

From Merriam-Webster, Webster's Standard American Style Manual (1985):

When an ampersand is used between the last two elements in a series, the comma is omitted.

the law firm of Shilliday, Fraser & French

From U.S. Government Printing Office, A Manual of Style (1986):

The comma is omitted— ... 8.57. Before ampersand (&). (For exception, see rule 15.29.)

Brown, Wilson & Co.

Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers

The exception given in rule 15.29 involves index entries in which a surname appears as part of a company name that also includes an ampersand; USGPS declares that, in such cases, and the company name should be indexed alphabetically by the surname, in the following form:

Brown, A.H., & Sons (not Brown & Sons, A.H.)

Bu this exception doesn't involve a series, so it isn't relevant to the posted question.

The only formal style that directly contradicts the generally approved rule not to use a comma before & in a series is APA (American Psychological Association) style. According to Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, revised thirteenth edition (1998):

Use the ampersand (&) to separate the authors names.

A work by more than two authors

One recent study has shown that people who fear failure are not susceptible to hypnosis (Manganello, Carlson, Zarillo, & Teeven, 1985)

I should perhaps also note that many style guides oppose the use of ampersands except in proper names. For example, The Associated Press Stylebook (2007) includes this guideline:

ampersand (&) Use the ampersand when it is part of a company's name or composition title: House & Garden [magazine title], Procter & Gamble, Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway.

The ampersand should not otherwise be used in place of and.

So AP style would require the OP's example sentence to be rendered as follows:

The same products attracted all European countries to India: spices, silk, and cotton.

Although the Oxford Guide to Style (2002) generally agrees with AP on this point, it adds an interesting exception:

Avoid ampersands except in names of firms that use them, established combinations (e.g., R & D, R & B, C & W),and in some lexicographic work. Occasionally they may be convenient for clarification: in cinnamon & raisin and onion bagels are available the ampersand makes clear there are two rather than three types on offer.

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2000), follows up on this point by more explicitly asserting the ampersand's ability to indicate a nested pairing:

ampersand = &, used in some formulae, references, and lexicographic work, in Acts of Parliament, and in business names. Since it may imply a closer relationship than and, the ampersand can be useful in grouping items: 'cinnamon & raisin and onion' are two, not three, types of bagels." ...

This notion of using an ampersand to nest a compound entry within a longer series appears to be the central point of Ant_222's answer, as well. Still, Oxford's discussion of bagel types does not constitute not an endorsement of using an ampersand in place of and in a series such as "spices, silk, and cotton."

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Ampersands with company names and abbreviations

There is a famous retail shop in the UK called "Marks & Spencer" or simply "M&S" it is never separated by a comma, the ampersand is used in place of "and" to join the names of two families, founders, or nouns that are bound together intrinsically, e.g. rock & roll (also written as “rock'n'roll”) or as an abbreviation, e.g. B&B (bed and breakfast), and Q&A (questions and answers).

Commas with Ampersands

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, cited in the LA Times,

“When an ampersand is used instead of the word ‘and’ (as in company names), the serial comma is omitted: ‘Winken, Blinken & Nod is a purveyor of nightwear,…’”.

Which suggests that company names or common abbreviations joined by an ampersand should not be separated by a comma; e.g.

Nowadays, tourists have a wider choice of accommodation: hotels, hostels, airbnbs, and B&Bs.

In the OP's original sentence, silk and cotton are two different fabrics, where "and" is substituted by the ampersand, which is acceptable in a text or casual correspondence but inappropriate in formal communication. In an English language exam, the sentence should be rewritten as

The same products attracted all European countries to India: spices, silk, and cotton.

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  • You see 'Marks & Spencer' and 'M&S' on store fronts, shopping bags, till receipts, etc, the formal company name is 'Marks and Spencer PLC'. Apr 27 at 11:04
  • The London, Tilbury & Southend Railway: A History of the Company and Line Volume 8: 1963-1975. Price: £11.95. Apr 27 at 11:06
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    These examples do not include [Oxford comma + ampersand] examples; one would not expect a comma in two-item lists whether coordinated using & or the expansion. Apr 27 at 11:37
  • Not my DV, by the way. I'm in a strange mood today. Apr 27 at 11:47
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    But 2-item lists would not normally use a comma whether you used '&' or 'and' as the coordinator marker. 3-item lists often use the Oxford comma as well as the first listing comma. So examples of the form [A&B] don't address the example OP thinks germane here. Apr 27 at 13:32
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Whereas the ampersand is just a short denotation of the conjunction and, the obvious answer is to punctuate it as one would normally punctuate and. One interesting usage of the ampersand is to glue, as it were, noun pairs closer together, in contrast with adjacent instances of and, for example:

To participate in this game, you will need patience, pen & paper, and a lot of spare time.

Notice how & glues pen and paper together so that they become a single element of the enumeration:

  1. patience,
  2. pen and paper, and
  3. a lot of spare time.

Observe also that my simple advice does not contradict the answer of Mari-Lou, as no one in their right mind would think of sundering composite names with punctuation after replacing & with and. For instance:

My favourite music genres are rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.

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