More commas before ‘and’


It’s got to be the topic closest to editors’ hearts: commas. We love arguing about them, and I’m intrigued by how different editors apply comma rules. I’m fond of saying that there are two types of editor: comma putterinnerers and comma takerouterers, which is just another way of saying, ‘I see your comma rules and I raise you anarchy’.

Here I want to talk specifically about the comma before ‘and’. I’ve written about it before, but this post is about the specific examples I see in very polished writing.

Brief comma refresh

The function of commas is to separate elements in a sentence:

1. To separate main clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’. These are sentences like:

Caffeine can keep coffee drinkers alert, and it may elevate their mood (TLBH p. 432)

Each element either side of the <, and> is a sentence that can stand on its own.

2. To set off introductory elements: Yesterday, she was very upset.

3. To set off non-essential elements: She was, understandably, very upset.

4. To separate three or more items of equal importance in a list: We all need air, water, food, and chocolate. (The last comma in this example is a serial comma; it’s not the topic of this post.)

5. To separate coordinate adjectives: The red, blue, yellow and green blanket was very warm. (This sentence has a list that doesn’t use the serial comma.)

In general, then, you don’t use a comma when you’re separating items in a list of two. TLBH says explicitly that you should delete a comma that separates a pair of words, phrases or subordinate clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (p. 448).

When sentences are short, this is easy. We would all recognise that these commas are wrong:

A. I bought milk, and bread. (comma incorrectly separating two direct objects)

B. I went shopping, and bought groceries. (comma incorrectly separating two verbs dependent on the same subject: I went shopping; I bought groceries)

However, this is more difficult to see in longer sentences where the structural elements are the same, just longer.

Sentences using <, and>

From a number of large documents, I took a sample of sentences that have the structure
< , and> and then divided them up into different types. A lot of them fit the pattern described in 1 and 4 above, so those commas were fine.

But I could also see some that fit the A and B examples above. (Note that the sample sentences below come from real sentences I find in my work, but I’ve changed key phrases to protect privacy.)

Type A (with two items that come off the stem ‘required to research’ shown in the numbered square brackets)

(a) More work is desperately required to research [1] the best ways to manage these areas, and [2] whether we are able to improve the vegetation density in the short term.

Type B (with two verbs both dependent on the same subject)

(b) After six months I asked to work as a business analyst, and was promoted to Senior Analyst.

(c) The organisation works with the community, local government and industry groups, and fosters good management practices and ethics.

Some reasons authors might do this

I’ve had a look through this dataset and they do seem to fall into some rough categories.

1. Proliferation of ‘and’: the first list item has ‘and’ as part of it

(d) I have divided it into tools that we use specifically as part of our reading and writing processes, and tools that we use in a broader business context.

In this example, the author wants to separate the two occurrences of ‘and’ that occur as part of the phrase ‘our reading and writing processes and tools’, even though it’s clear from the parallel structure of ‘tools that we use for X … tools that we use for Y’ what the two items in the list are. Sentence (c) also fits this pattern.

Sometimes the first list item can contain so many instances of ‘and’ that the comma helps bring the reader back to what the stem is (although the best solution then is usually to break the sentence into two and, in the example below, fix the redundancy).

(e) You will need to revise the climate change section of the website regularly with updates and new information about adaptation planning as well as emergent technology and resilience processes that reduce impacts of climate change and warming, and the lessons being learned from on-ground projects and field trials.

In this very long list, the author is distinguishing between information available from external research and information available from this organisation’s internal research. However, the first list isn’t named as such and consists of a list of the possible things that come under the heading of external research.

The overall issue then seems to be that the sentence is just too long, and the author feels that adding the comma will help break up what appears to be a long list.

2. Using a comma to separate nouns where one is modified but the other not

(f) By the end of the period, to have all agencies, and properties identified in the research program showing improved results in pest management.

If this sentence were just ‘… to have all agencies and properties showing improved results …’, I think the author wouldn’t have used the unnecessary comma. Note this modification is restrictive, in that not all properties are included in the list.

3. Where a prepositional phrase gives more information about the first noun in a list of two nouns

(g) He has been a plant illustrator for books based on theses, and has advised art students on aspects of biological illustration.

(h) Her role includes writing fact sheets about social research, and working with a variety of community stakeholders.

The prepositional phrase here is another kind of modification, but it’s non-restrictive; it just provides additional information.

4. Using a comma when the first list item has a series of commas, and it seems to close that list off before giving the second list item

(i) I left Australia at the end of a long, hot, enervating summer, and began my research at Max Planck Institute feeling like a desiccated leaf.

5. Using a comma to signal a pause in real time

(j) It is the first thing I do when I come into the office each morning, and the last thing I do before I leave each night.

Here the author seems to have inserted the comma to provide the sense of real time that has passed between the morning and the evening. Sentence (b) could also fit this pattern, if the author intends to convey a passage of time between asking for the role and being promoted within the role.

6. Using a comma to provide emphasis by separating the two list items

(k) He said he WOULD make the call, and would do so immediately.

The capped ‘WOULD’ was in the original text, which led me to think that the author wanted each list item to stand a bit more independently than they would without the comma.

I’m very interested to know what other editors think about this. Can all these instances of comma use be gathered together under the umbrella of avoiding ambiguity (even that is usually an explanation for use of the serial comma, where the list has three or more items)? If you’re an editor and have a source that says this type of comma is fine, please do link it in the comments below!


Fowler HR and Aaron JE. 2007. The Little, Brown Handbook. Pearson Longman. New York.



All the married ladies: unravelling the puzzle of plural titles


I recently saw a photo of my cousin, her two sisters-in-law and her mother-in-law at what looked to be a lovely evening out with family. The photo was tagged ‘Four Mrs Jenkins’, and my cousin had asked where the apostrophe went. It took me a moment. I knew right away there was no apostrophe, because it was a straight plural, not a possessive. It wasn’t in the same category as ‘All the cats’ whiskers’, which is the full set of whiskers belonging to all the cats, or ‘All the archers’ bows’, the full set of bows belonging to all the archers.

But was it Jenkinses? That didn’t seem right either. For one thing, it would be ‘Four Mrs Jenkinses’ and that sounds like ‘Four Misses Jenkinses’, which was a clue to play around with the title instead of the name. ‘Misses’ is the plural of ‘miss’. It made me wonder what it would have been if we were talking about all the husbands instead of all the wives.

That was easier: they would be the four Misters Jenkins. It seemed right, but it made me think about which was the noun and which the adjective, as nouns get pluralised, but adjectives (at least, in English) don’t. You can use a person’s name as a noun, as in ‘That boy really is a Jenkins!’ which makes it seem as if ‘Jenkins’ is the noun.

But Mrs is a title, which is a noun, and other titles turn into count nouns when you pluralise them. For example, ‘Justice Davies, Justice Smith and Justice Andrews [The justices] have all declared their support.’ ‘Jenkins’ in ‘the four Misters Jenkins’ isn’t taking a plural, which means it’s functioning more as a modifier to the title. If you didn’t have a title getting in the way, you could easily pluralise ‘Jenkins’: ‘The Jenkinses will be coming over for dinner tonight.’

The reason it took a bit of working out is that we still use the French for the plural: Mesdames. So that’s the answer: ‘Four Mesdames Jenkins.’ I hope they all had a wonderful time at their party. Bon soir!

Provide me food: dependent prepositions


Over the last year or so I’ve noticed some language change happening to the word ‘provide’ and how it’s used with prepositions – the words that tell you the relationship between the nouns (and pronouns).

A verb like ‘provide’ can be transitive, intransitive or ditransitive. That is, it can work:

  1. without an object (intransitive): We hope the state will provide.
  2. with an object (transitive): They provided food.
  3. with an object and an indirect object (ditransitive): They provided her with food (or They provided food to her).

The third example has the preposition ‘with’ or ‘to’, depending on what order you put the nouns in, but the rule is that the noun that comes second uses a dependent preposition, and if the recipient is the indirect object, then this element is optional.

‘Provide’ has a few dependent prepositions:

  • Provide (someone) with (something) (from #3 above)
  • Provide (something) to (someone) (also from #3 above)
  • Provide for (something or someone)
  • Provide against (something)

What I’ve been seeing recently is examples where the author clearly meant to use the ditransitive version, but didn’t add the preposition:

They provided her food.

The preposition is now missing. This changes the type of sentence it is, from being a ditransitive example to a transitive example, and changes the relationship between the nouns, therefore changing the meaning of the sentence.

The original sentence, ‘They provided her with food’ means that someone has given a woman some food.

If we take the preposition out, ‘her’ is acting possessively to modify ‘food’. It was her food, not his. Or: ‘The food that is her was provided by them.’ The focus can vary, but what’s important here is that the food is hers.

Here’s another example:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

This sounds like it was supposed to say either ‘customer service’ or it’s a possessive that is missing its apostrophe. Was it meant to be ‘customers’ service’? If we put the preposition in, it’s clearer:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers with service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

The reason I’m uncomfortable with the form that omits the preposition is a question of geography. It’s not acceptable in British or Australian English, but it is acceptable, apparently, in American English. Forms such as ‘provide me food’ are found in the US, which to my Australian ears just sounds like someone being lazy in saying ‘my’.

Here are some ngrams for the phrase ‘provide me (with) food’ according to English, American English and British English. It’s clear that the phrase using the preposition is much more common than without. But interestingly, the two forms are closer together in British English than in American English. Ngrams are only looking at published works, most of which will have been through some kind of editorial process and therefore will conform more closely to standard.


I had thought that a straight internet search would show up more occurrences of the version without the prepositions, but “provide me food” returns 11,400 results, and “provide me with food” returns 84,000 results, which is approximately 7 times the results returned without the preposition.

It will be interesting to see how this changes in the coming years, but for now I’m staying with the ‘with’ team.

Dashing through the alphabet


Christmas 2017

Dashing to the end of the year, and what a year it’s been! You can see here on the work section of the site what’s been keeping me busy: among other things, I’ve edited reports about the Great Barrier Reef, tourism and bush foods in Australia, contract farming in Ethiopia and aquaculture in Kenya.

Apart from that, I convened a conference committee for Editors Queensland and IPEd for the 8th IPEd National Editors Conference. It was a wonderful experience, during which I worked with many talented people. If you’re an editor in Australia (or want to visit Australia!), make sure you come along to the next one: Melbourne, May 2019. If you’re a writer, know that editors love getting together and talking about the best ways of working with authors. We’re all in the business of making manuscripts sing.

Speaking of singing, to end the year I’ve dashed off this little Ode to the Alphabet (with apologies to ‘Jingle Bells’). Enjoy!

Checking carefully
In a research manuscript
For sense and clarity
Red pen loosely gripped
When suddenly I twitch
Something is not right
A quoted passage has a glitch
Whose is this oversight?

Oh, alphabet, alphabet
Order is the key
You let the reader find the source
By checking A, B, C
Alphabet, alphabet
You make it so easy
For anyone to find a name
In a bibliography.

I need to find out where
This quote has first appeared
Was this error there?
Or is it as I feared?
The author made a slip
Retyping this in haste
Instead of point and click to give
Verbatim copy and paste.

Oh, alphabet, alphabet
Thank goodness I can find
In 50 pages of references
That one particular line
That takes me to the source
Of the quote, and I’ll know quick
I’ll see if I should fix it up
Or merely add a [sic].

I’ve made it to the site
The original of the quote
The error’s there, all right
I have the antidote
I add a little [sic]
It’s just like poetry
How simply with the alphabet
Works your bibliography!

See you in 2018!


Oh, the dilemma!

Rock Hard PlaceI was recently asked by a friend about the difference between ‘choose’ and ‘decide’. She felt that ‘choose’ implied more personal agency and that ‘decide’ is what you do when you have less personal agency and you’re left with having to select between someone else’s choices. She asked this specifically with regards to how animals in captivity might be limited in their choice of opportunities, such as where they might like to rest. She told me that animals in the wild have a high degree of agency and choose from a wide range of opportunities such as exactly how much dappled light they might lie in. Confined animals have notably less options, often having to decide between sun or shade, inside or outside, the rock or the dirt. I love that these questions of word choice come up in the most interesting fields!

Anyway, my linguistics study, many moons ago, included the topic of semantics, where we had whole assignments on the difference between a cup and a mug, between happiness and joy. For those assignments we needed to look carefully at the evidence of how both these words are used, starting with definitions.

Macquarie has this for ‘decide’:

–verb (t) 1. to determine or settle (a question, controversy, struggle, etc.) by giving victory to one side. 2. to adjust or settle (anything in dispute or doubt). 3. to bring (a person) to a decision: *The appearance of the woman decided me at once –oliné keese, 1859. –verb (i) 4. to settle something in dispute or doubt. 5. to pronounce a judgement; come to a conclusion.

and this for ‘choose’:

–verb (t) 1. to select from a number, or in preference to another or other things or persons. 2. to prefer and decide (to do something): she chose to stand for election. 3. to want; desire.

Neither definition mentions agency, although ‘decide’ has more meanings that imply an external party.

After looking around a bit further, I think the word that conveys the lack of freedom of choice is ‘dilemma’. There are a number of different types of dilemma (including, but not limited to ‘ethical dilemma’), but the main definition is ‘a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable’.

The problem with ‘choose’ vs. ‘decide’ is that while ‘choose’ definitely conveys the possibility of two or more choices, it can equally be used to describe limited choices. We have a lot of expressions for this (from that wiki page linked to above): ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’; ‘Lesser of two evils’; ‘Between a rock and a hard place’, since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough; ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’.

But none of these tell us if we would use the verb ‘choose’ or ‘decide’ for them. For that we can go to ngrams, which track word and phrase usage over time. Here are the links to where I ran a couple of these.

  • lesser of’ shows ‘choose between’ on the chart; ‘decide between’ doesn’t even appear.
  • between the devil’ is the same.

If you accept that ‘between’ means that the choices are only two (and therefore limited), then you can run an ngram on ‘choose between’ and ‘decide between’, which shows that ‘choose between’ is far more common than ‘decide between’. All this suggests that ‘choose’ can be used even when agency is limited.

The other problem with putting ‘decide’ as the option where an individual doesn’t have agency is that while some of its meanings are about external authority, the meaning also specifically includes instances of personal agency. We also have positive connotations in English for that word; for instance, you might prefer to read a job application where the applicant describes themselves as decisive rather than indecisive. It has strong connotations of personal agency.

Also, ‘choose’ and ‘decide’ are in many instances interchangeable, and only in some instances not:

  • ‘humans choosedecide what possibilities are available and the animal must decidechoose which to utilise’
  • ‘animal had agency then it may choose [maybe interchangeable here? but less so] something completely different.’
  • ‘tripe or brains for dinner? I wouldn’t choose [can’t change this one] to eat either … I must decidechoose between what’s available’.

All of this makes me want to spend days gathering a ton of data from various corpora about exactly where these phrases are used and exactly how much agency is implied in every usage and do a comparison over time … but instead I will choose to keep going on my more immediate editorial tasks. Happy new year!

Everyone’s a critic: beware Muphry’s Law

OneDoesNotSometimes you see people taking to the streets, vigilante style, to right wrongs and solve the world’s problems, especially those very important problems, like grammatically incorrect graffiti. Sometimes, stories like this even make it around the world, as when a couple of grammar pedants in Quito, Ecuador, recently made news for The Guardian paper in the UK. They take their correcting cannisters and add accents, cut commas and modify misspellings.


I loved this story, even though the vigilantes in question have to carry out their crusade under the protective cover of darkness and behind Twitter handles like Diéresis (Spanish for ‘diaeresis’, the name of the two dots that go over the second vowel in a pair to signal a syllable change, such as in ‘naïve’) rather than their own names. It’s subversive stuff, correcting grammar in Ecuador. Despite the perils, they’re doing a public service – supplying corrected copy for the benefit of all those passersby and even the original poster, as it were.

It’s one thing to be pointing out errors in graffiti; the public shaming that goes on whenever someone makes a grammatical error on the internet seems another kettle of fish entirely. Judging by the number of memes about this, it appears to have become the fallback position of losing arguers (meme-counting is valid quantitative data collection, isn’t it?).


It can also get revoltingly rabid. Errors often arise from a literacy problem (but does anyone have the stats on how public shaming of poor literacy improves literacy? I thought not). But it’s not always about literacy: it turns out there is a reason why people who know that they know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ are still typing the wrong one. This research describes how our brains take shortcuts to get the job done, choosing high frequency routes sometimes over the correct route. For example, you might type ‘I’m going, to’ when you mean ‘I’m going, too,’ because you’re probably more used to typing ‘I’m going to [the shops/check/be there, etc.]’.

Both of these stories remind me of Muphry’s Law. You probably know of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong); Muphry’s Law says that if you criticise the writing/editing/proofreading of a work, there will be writing/editing/proofreading mistakes in your criticism. Some time ago I saw an unfortunate instance of Muphry’s Law in action. Taped to the back of a toilet door on a university campus, I found an ad for an editor who was offering to help people with their assignments. Unfortunately, the ad itself had an error in it.


This isn’t an exact example of Muphry’s Law, in that the editor wasn’t directly criticising any written work, but obviously there is an implication that student work will have errors and will therefore need editing.

You have only to go to any site about grammar or language use to find that Muphry’s Law is strong. Writing something about the state of grammar teaching in particular will bring out the critics in droves, each of them lamenting the old days when we could all parse a sentence and express our ideas with eloquence and grace, yet somehow failing to do it themselves. In the comments for this article from The Age about teaching grammar in schools I found someone who is not concise in urging writers to be concise:

I’m not a grammar nazi, like so many old fogies who have few other achievements in their lives to hang on to but understanding past perfect participles and wrestling subjunctives into submission, but as someone who wasted years trying to teach writing to uni students who didn’t know a noun from a verb, a subject from a verb, a comma from a hyphen or a sentence from a jumble of clauses or phrases, I am all for enough traditional grammar to enable people to say what they mean with clarity and conciseness.

And then there’s this, from a WBC picket notice:


Muphry’s law aside (which is always good for a laugh), shaming people on the internet for poor grammar or spelling is the least effective use of your time there. Instead, why not get some grammar giggles?

Help me to assist you

One of the hallmarks of formal writing in English seems to be that it uses Latin words even where there is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) synonym; in fact, changing Latin words to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents is one of the tools in the ‘paramedic method’ of editing. The push to plain(er) language in business and science writing means that we’re seeing much less of ‘annum’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘employment’ and more of ‘year’, ‘enough’ and ‘work’.

But it seems that ‘assist’ is really hanging in there. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘to give support, help, or aid to in some undertaking or effort, or in time of distress.’ The Anglo-Saxon equivalent ‘help’ is defined as ‘to cooperate effectively with a person; aid; assist’. They definitely mean the same thing.

Yet I almost never see ‘help’ in the reports I edit, whereas ‘assist’ is very common. There seems to be reluctance by writers to use the more direct word, as if perhaps the Latin word keeps a polite distance and an assumption of equality between the giver and recipient of the aid. This view seems to be borne out in other articles I found, such as this from a coaching company (they did not link to their source of this definition):

When we give or offer to ‘help’ someone, we are generally working from the assumption that the person in question is unable to resolve their own problems. We may take on the solution to the problem when we offer help … On the other hand, when we make ourselves available to ‘assist’ another person, they continue to own the project, goal, or problem – we simply make ourselves available as an additional resource that they can make use of along the way.

and this from a business communication site:

In a strict sense, ‘assistance’ implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that ‘help’ does not … Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).

Macquarie Dictionary does not make this distinction; nor does Oxford Dictionaries. That description from Webster’s given in the quote above isn’t online anywhere (but that’s not to say it isn’t in a paper copy), and the standard Webster’s online dictionary doesn’t say anything about subordination being part of the meaning of ‘assist’. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says that ‘assist is a formal word, and means to help someone by doing part of the work for them, especially the things that are not very important’, but this still doesn’t say anything about whether ‘help’ assumes helplessness of the recipient or a patronising attitude of the helper.

Is this a word undergoing meaning shift? Or is it just that people feel they should use the more formal word in more formal contexts? In this case, the message is clear with ‘help’. ‘Assist’ doesn’t add anything that ‘help’ doesn’t already have. No need, however, for ‘help assist’, as in this, from George Bush in January 1990: ‘I informed President Endara that we’d arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.’ That’s just too much.

Thanks to Pleated Jeans for the image, which originally came from Izifunny, and probably from somewhere else before that.