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!

Get amongst it


Just as new words come in (twerking, anybody? don’t worry, the link is the very SFW OED’s online quarterly update of new words), some words draw a resigned last breath and fade away. It may be that the thing they refer to no longer exists:

snollygoster: a 19th century American word for ‘a dishonest or corrupt politician’. Or, to take an original definition from the editor of a Georgia newspaper: ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’.

Or that we have found a new word for this thing:

gelicide n 1656–1681:  Frost. ‘Unfortunately, the flowers were killed too soon by an early gelicide.’

Some words, such as ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, are in the act of disappearing as we speak. Both the -st forms are old, coming out of Middle English (12th–15th centuries), but not as old as the plainer forms ‘while’ and ‘among’, which come out of Old English (up to the 11th century).

There is now a lot of geographical variation in the use of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, which are used more in British English than by Australians and Americans. Yet the Brits, Aussies and Americans all prefer ‘while’ and ‘among’ over ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’.

Caution: data ahead

A search for ‘whilst:while’ and ‘amongst:among’ in Brigham Young University’s GLoWBE (corpus of Global Web-based English) shows these occurrences for each word in the US, Australia and the UK.

  • In the US, ‘while’ occurs around 50 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 13 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In Australia, ‘while’ occurs around 8 times more often than ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In the UK, ‘while’ occurs around 5 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.


The GLoWBE corpus shows a more contemporary use and a larger range of use than might be found from books, but Brigham Young University also have data generated from the text found in Google Books. These would have more consistently conformed to the publishing standards of the day and can be compared by date, so you can see how the relative use of the ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ forms has dropped:


But why all the fuss about these two slowly disappearing words?

I still see a lot of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ in my work, and to conform with the style guides set by my clients, I normally change it. There are two main concerns people have about changing to the more common form:

  • some people feel that the ‘-st’ forms are more grammatically correct
  • some people worry that there is a difference in meaning between the two forms, so that each must be used within a particular context.

Grammatical correctness

To check for grammatical correctness, I go to dictionaries and style guides.

Australian: The Style manual doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. Pam Peters’ Australian English Style Guide says ‘whilst’ is ‘conspicuous by its absence in the daily press in Australia and Britain, and is most formally represented in formal and literary nonfiction’. ‘Amongst’ also appears more frequently in ‘more rhetorical and literary styles, in religious writing as well has higher-brow fiction and humour’. Of ‘while’, the Macquarie Dictionary says ‘conjunction while [earlier whilest, from whiles + inorganic -t, as in amongst]; of amongst, it says ‘preposition among’, and also describes how ‘amongst’ is part of the verbal phrases ‘get amongst’ and ‘get amongst it’.

British: Both editions of Fowler’s (1926 and 2000) have ‘whilst’ as a variant of ‘while’, noting that it is not used in American English, and go on to describe all the ways people incorrectly use ‘while’ – for example, to mean ‘and’ – without drawing any distinction between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’.

American: The Little, Brown Handbook doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. The Associated Press Stylebook Online says this:

Q: Does AP have a preference between the use of “while” vs. “whilst”? – from 75251, Texas on Thu, Jan 27, 2011; A: AP stories use while. Whilst is a chiefly British form.

All this checking shows that there really is no difference between the two forms; the ‘-st’ forms are used interchangeably with the non ‘-st’ forms, and both are grammatically correct.


However, the ‘-st’ forms seem to lend a certain tone to writing, which in British English might be called ‘formality’ and in American English might be called ‘snootiness’.

The best explanation I could find for how these -st forms even came about is from World Wide Words, which basically says that the possessive form ‘-s’ was added so the conjunction could be used adverb, and then the ‘t’ was added in southern England in confusion with the superlative ‘-est’ addition (such as in ‘gentlest’).

Having checked all the sources I find reputable, I then started looking at other sites and found a bit more explanation of regional use, and also some (unsourced) views about what ‘some’ grammarians apparently think.

Grammar monster has this paragraph about ‘whilst’ as a conjunction, but I didn’t find any evidence of this in the grammar sources I checked:

Some grammarians engaged in the while-whilst debate claim that, in the meaning during the time that or at the same time as, whilst should be used for a short period of time and while should be used for a longer period of time. Building on this idea, some claim that whilst is like when and while is more like during. Some try to formalise this idea a little more, stating that while should be used with the past progressive tense.

Also, this site did explain how ‘while’ can be a noun, a verb and a conjunction, whereas ‘whilst’ can only be a conjunction:

  • “I’ll be there in a while.” (noun)
  • “I’d while away the hours.” (verb)
  • “I’ll sleep while/whilst you’re shopping.” (conjunction)

And in some regional dialects there is a real distinction, as shown in these responses to a Guardian ‘Semantic enigmas’ question:

The while/whilst distinction is made in several dialects, mostly those of the South. The distinction being between substantive and adverbial/conjunction. I find that contempt for this minor feature of the English language is most often harboured by those who believe it, even though a dialectal feature, to be a sign of pretention.

Rurik Greenall, Trondheim, Norway

In some Midlands dialects, there has been a distinct difference – “whilst” meaning “during the time when” and “while” meaning “until, up to point when”, e.g. “Look after this whilst I’m gone” or “Look after this while I come back”. Sounds wrong to the purist, but in Rutland they would know what you meant.

S Killingworth, Wimbledon

The upshot is that it’s equally correct in terms of grammar to use ‘while’ or ‘whilst’ (as a conjunction), and ‘among’ or ‘amongst’, but it will mark your writing as being British, formal, possibly pretentious.

And note that while you can set the cat ‘among’ the pigeons just as easily as ‘amongst’ the pigeons, you can only ‘get amongst it’. You can’t have that any other way.



AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Oxford Dictionaries blog:
The Phrontistery Compendium of Lost Words:
Online Etymology Dictionary:
Grammar Girl:
World Wide Words:
Grammar Monster:
The Guardian:
The Guardian:,5753,-5498,00.html
And the image: poly-mer on Tumbler.

Survival guide to climate change … hyphenation


In the scheme of things that are going to happen under climate change, hyphenation is surely the least of anyone’s worries. However, I am in the business of making reports readable and internally consistent, and while I’m waiting to get the dinghy out it remains my daily task to wrestle with such issues.

The problem is that I often see phrases such as ‘climate-change impact’ mixed up with ‘climate change impact’, and ‘climate-change-induced change’ with ‘climate change-induced change’. In the interests of hyphen harmony, I’ve put this list together as a handy how-to.

My source is the (Australian) Style Manual 6th edn. I’ve copied out the relevant sections below, giving them a ‘rule number’ in square brackets (and their page numbers, of course). The table below that describes, in the first column, how these phrases should be set; the second column tells you which rule I’ve applied to make that decision.

Here goes.

p. 88 … the main concern should be to retain consistency in hyphenation throughout a document … hyphens can be an important device to avoid ambiguity, but otherwise there is no need to overuse them. The decision about whether or not to use a hyphen must often be based on the context in which the word or words appear.

[1] p. 91 Compound adjectives: when a compound adjective consists of two adjectives, or of a noun plus an adjective the expression is hyphenated no matter whether it precedes or follows the noun it is describing: bitter-sweet, red-hot → climate-ready, climate-ready approach, approach is climate-ready.

[2] p. 92 In contrast, compound adjectives that are set phrases consisting of, say, a noun plus a noun or an adjective plus a noun are not usually hyphenated: a tax office ruling, the stock exchange report, an equal opportunity employer → climate change approach.

Note: if the expression is further modified, a hyphen may be necessary to prevent ambiguity, as in a ‘a retrospective tax-office ruling’ → mild climate-change attitude to avoid the problem of reading ‘mild climate’ as a set phrase. I haven’t ever actually seen this phrase used, but the principle applies.

[3] p. 93 Compound adjectives containing capital letters, italics or quotations marks are not usually hyphenated: a ‘do or die’ attitude → ‘climate ready’ approach.

Note: it’s normally sufficient to put a phrase in quotation marks like this just once, the first time it is mentioned. Thereafter the quotation marks can be dropped, which leads us to ‘climate ready’ approach for the first mention, but climate-ready approach for subsequent mentions.

[4] p. 108: when a compound adjective precedes the noun it qualifies, it is often hyphenated. If, however, the compound noun consists of more than one word (or element) on either side of the hyphen, an en rule should replace the hyphen to indicate the broader link: a hepatitis C–positive person → climate change–induced weather, pre–climate change distribution.

[5] Compound adjectives involving present or past participles usually take a hyphen: government-owned facility, heart-rending image → climate-induced change.

Phrase RULE
climate-ready approach 1
‘climate ready’ approach 3
climate-ready biodiversity management activities 1
‘climate ready’ biodiversity conservation objectives 3
climate-ready biodiversity planning 1
climate-ready status 1
climate change adaptation 2
climate change impacts 2
climate change responses 2
climate change scenarios 2
‘climate ready’ assessment criteria 3
‘climate ready’ concepts 3
‘climate ready’ framework 3
climate change–driven changes 4
climate change–induced loss 4
non–climate change pressures 4
pre–climate change distribution 4
climate-driven ecological change 5
climate-induced change 5

Source: Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.

Apostrophe atrocity

Get a group of editors in a room together and you can bet that we’ll be complaining about misplaced apostrophes before you can say ‘greengrocer’. While detailed questions of apostrophe use take pages to explain, the basic rules of apostrophe use are fairly simple:

Apostrophes are used for two things:

1. to show that a single noun owns something: Ruth’s house.

If you remember that you can always turn this around into ‘house of Ruth’, it will help with plural possessives (see below).

2. to show that some letters have been left out of a contraction:

do not = don’t                   cannot = can’t

it’s = it is               or            it has

Apostrophes are not used in plurals unless there is also possession:

1. The girls are walking their dogs. (plural ‘girls’; plural ‘dogs’; no apostrophes)

2. The girls’ dogs are barking. (the girls own the dogs)

Apostrophes are also not used in the possessive ‘its’.

1. The dog wagged its tail.

(If you would like to see the basics of apostrophe use in cartoon format, have a look at Boggleton Drive

So, to tabulate this:

  Singular Plural
Not possessive Please send this to the student. Please send this to the students.(note, no apostrophe)
Possessive Please send this to the student’s teacher.(one teacher, one student)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the student. Please send this to the students’ teacher.(many students, one teacher)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the students.
  Please send this to the students’ teachers.(many students, many teachers)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teachers of the students.
IT’S/ITS – for a musical version of this, follow the link to the apostrophe song and forever remember “don’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ unless you mean ‘it is’”.
Contractions The dog thinks it’s great to have a tail = The dog thinks it is great to have a tail.It’s been wonderful to see you = It has been wonderful to see you.
Possessive The dog wagged its tail. (no apostrophe)

Causes of misplaced apostrophes

1. Plurals: people seem to think that you need an apostrophe for a plural. You can see from the table above that you only need this if possession is involved (and the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’ for singular and after the ‘s’ for plural). In the sentence: A picture is worth a thousand word’s, there is a misplaced apostrophe because ‘words’ is plural and has no need for an apostrophe.

2. Numbers: It did used to be the fashion to put an apostrophe between a run of numbers and a plural ‘s’, for example, the 1980’s. This is now considered incorrect, as there is no risk of misreading it without the apostrophe: 1980s.

3. Shortened forms: Again, it was the fashion to form a plural shortened form with an ’s, but that’s now considered unnecessary as there is no risk of misreading: DVDs, CDs. There are some instances where it might still be used to avoid ambiguity:

A’s are difficult to get in Year 12.

You need to watch your p’s and q’s and make sure you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

With the latter example, some style guides prefer that you italicise the p and q so that it reads like this: You need to watch your ps and qs and make sure you’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts.

However, this is more ambiguous – particularly the example of is, which is easier understood if an apostrophe is used.

Some of the confusion in these forms may arise because of the combination of contraction, which does require an apostrophe to mark the omitted letters, and a plural form, which requires no apostrophe. Words such as demos and subs are both plurals from contractions, where users perhaps want the apostrophe to mark the missing letters from demonstrations or from substitutions (or subeditors or submarines). But usual contractions don’t work with plurals anyway; they all have the pattern of omitting letters from singular words, most often ‘not’ (as in could not = couldn’t and do not = don’t), and sometimes ‘us’ (as in let us = let’s) or ‘have’ (as in could have = could’ve – note, not could of!).

4. Third person singular: as if the happy coincidence of a word ending in ‘s’ meaning a possible plural (two cats) or a possible possessive (cat’s tail) weren’t confusing enough, the regular form of third person singular verbs in English also ends with ‘s’ and does not take an apostrophe. That’s the he/she/it form. So: I eat, you eat, she eats. And because people are confused about apostrophes, they are starting to throw them in here too. The image on the home page is a good example of this: the early bird gets the right size, not get’s. It’s interesting that there are some words that can be both contractions and third person singular, such as lets/let’s. The use of lets, as in ‘He lets his children play in the park’ is not the same as ‘Let’s go and play in the park’, where let’s is a contraction for let us.

In the next post about apostrophes I’ll address some of the more specific cases that give people trouble, such as the descriptive versus possessive use (species distribution); proper names ending in ‘s’; joint ownership; inanimate objects and possession; compound titles; generic phrases; expressions of time; and examples from other languages.

Other resources

OWL at Purdue:

Grammar Girl: and

Commas before ‘and’ …

Up the garden path − or, why a fanboy comma is your friend

The comma is a valuable punctuation device because it separates the structural elements of sentences into manageable segments.

The Rule:

Use commas to separate independent clauses (that is, a part of a sentence that can stand on its own) when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The acronym of this list of conjunctions is FANBOYS, so these commas are known as FANBOYS commas.

The game was over, and she was exhausted.

The sentence above is short and clear, so the comma is not really necessary. But in longer sentences, this comma really helps to avoid ambiguity:

Without the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Without the comma, this sentence could easily read as:

The study noticed … general reluctance … and criticism.

This is being ‘led up the garden path’. A reader should be able to stay with the author of a sentence for the whole trip, without having to double back and re-read to make sense out of the material. In the above example, the reader has to wait until they get to ‘tended’ to realise that ‘criticism’ is actually the beginning of the second clause, not the end of the first one.

With the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally, and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Now it’s clearer that the sentence is really two sentences:

1. The study noticed … general reluctance.

2. Criticism … tended towards the hypercritical.

The comma alerts the reader that, in effect, a new sentence is starting. The reader will process ‘criticism’ as the first word in the new sentence, not as the second item in the list of things noticed in the study.

The Style:

There’s a comma called the Oxford, or serial comma, which comes before the last ‘and’ in a list:

The government works for voters, non-voters, and donkey voters.

There is no clear grammatical rule about whether to use this comma or not – it is a question of style.

In Australian style this comma is usually not used, except where it is required to avoid ambiguity:1

They should seek the support of landholders, philanthropists, government, and community and industry groups.

Here, ‘community and industry groups’ functions as the last item in the list. A comma has been placed before this last item to ensure that ‘community’ stays in the reader’s mind as an adjective for ‘groups’.

The serial comma is used more in American style than in British style (except, of course, at Oxford University Press, after which it is named), but there is by no means consensus. Wikipedia2 has a detailed explanation of who prescribes and proscribes its use, as well as many examples of how it is used to avoid ambiguity.

Other resources:

[1] Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual: For authors, editors and printers, 6th Edn. John Wiley & Sons, Australia. p. 102.