Looking at Lists

NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.

Another important function of commas is for lists. Whether it’s a list of things a character brought, or connecting beautiful descriptions, commas are required. Why is this? Simply to help distinguish items and points.



For example we might put:

Jill went to the shop and brought a banana muffin tin and chocolate.

From this sentence it looks like Jill brought a banana muffin tin, but presumably they don’t exist so let’s try with commas:

Jill went to the shop and brought a banana, muffin tin, and chocolate.

This clarifies matters a bit. In the previous article I suggested when you’re struggling using brackets to help work out where the commas go so let’s test that theory here, for future reference and because commas are little:

Jill went to the shop and brought (a banana) (muffin tin) and (chocolate).

As we can clearly see with the brackets as markers we have three separate items so we need a comma after each one. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Jesse, I didn’t need that for that little list’. As regular readers know I like to build it up so let’s get on to where you might need the brackets. Description.


Descriptive Lists

Using commas in description can be a lot like making a list. We just look at a list of three items so let’s look at three points of description:

He turned back towards the house, waved up at me and blew me a kiss.

[Victorian Mistress: Foolish, by Jesse Stuart]

This is a piece of description is as it appeared in an episode of Victorian Mistress complete with commas. But how did I get there? We have ‘He’, let’s use his name ‘Griffin’ for clarity, performing three actions. With the brackets:

(Griffin turned back towards the house) (waved up at me) and (blew me a kiss).

The brackets mark out these three separate actions telling us that we need commas between them otherwise it might look like the house was waving and blowing a kiss. As you’ll notice I didn’t put a comma between ‘me’ and ‘and’ this time. In this instance it didn’t feel necessary as although it’s a list of actions Griffin turned towards the house and then did both actions (this is part of the Oxford Comma debate.)*

Obviously not all description is so brief but the important thing to do is remember where you move from describing one thing to another. As long as you remember this then a reader should be able to follow your trail of thought without confusing which bit of description is attached to which object, action or person.

If a sentence appears become too long or have too many commas sometimes it simply needs breaking up into separate sentences. Alternatively, there are times when we find ourselves with an excess of commas because we’ve put a list within a list. For example using multiple adjectives to describe on thing can lead to a comma pool and we have to ask ourselves how many adjectives the description needs but that is really an editing issue where we streamline our prose.

Punctuation is primarily to make a piece of prose clear and understandable. If you’re struggling can be helpful to get someone to read the bit you’re struggling on and get them to give you an impression of what they understood from it. Think first about what you’re writing because commas can be added in editing when you’re not trying to get all the story down.


*The Oxford Comma:

The Oxford comma debate revolves around whether or not we need a comma before the and in a list to indicate that after the and is a separate item. We can argue that this is a case of personal preference; some people say we always need the comma, others say we never need it, personally I go with the theory we sometimes need it.

In the case of my original list it was a list of three distinct items with no obvious connection so I put a comma before the and:

Jill went to the shop and brought a banana, muffin tin, and chocolate.

In the case of my second example the character Griffin performed three actions however he turned then performed two more actions that were connected to each other but distinct from the act of turning:

He turned back towards the house, waved up at me and blew me a kiss.

In this case it might help to imagine the comma acting in the place of then:

He turned back towards the house then waved up at me and blew me a kiss.

If we place then where we put the comma we wouldn’t use a comma before the and. Looking at it this way I didn’t use a comma before the and when I didn’t use then. I don’t know how accurate other people would consider this, it’s simply a method that works for me.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.


Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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