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Comma before etc.?

Asked by [ Admin ]

Should there be a comma before "etc." when used in a list?

Example:

Should it be

I'm interested in buying apples, pears, potatoes, etc.

or

I'm interested in buying apples, pears, potatoes etc.

?


(See also a later question: Comma before etc., part two.)

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4 answers

3

donald remero [ Moderator ]

Yes, there should be a comma before "etc." when used in a list. It has the same status as any other item in a list of items.

Consider the following sentence: "I bought four things: silver, gold, bronze, copper."

When leaving out the final conjunction (that is, the word "and") in this series, you would never be tempted to also leave out the comma. Neither should you be tempted to leave it out when substituting multiple items with "etc.".

NN comments
peter mortensen
-

Thanks. I have seen the incorrect form many times on Stack Overflow so I was beginning to have some doubts as to what was the correct form.

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1

j. d. o'conal [ Editor ]

It is far more complicated than the other writers have admitted. Whether or not the so-called 'serial comma' ought to be used is sometimes hotly debated. The Oxford Guide to English Grammar (Eastwood 2002) advises that 'the last two items [in a list of more than two noun phrases] are linked by and or or, often without a comma'. The Oxford Guide to Style says that 'if the last item in a list has emphasis equal to the previous ones, it needs a comma to create a pause of equal weight to those that came before' and that 'the last comma serves to resolve ambiguity, particularly when any of the items are compound terms joined by a conjunction' (2002, p. 122). On the other hand, the Australian Government Style Manual recommends only using the final comma to avoid ambiguity (2002).

Personally, I always use a comma before the last item in a list, but it really is a matter of style. As with all matters of style, it is important to be consistent.

NN comments
donald remero
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Yes, fair enough. The serial-comma issue is relevant to the extent that “et” is treated as a conjunction. The rest is just schoolyard justification for commonsense conjecture, which if you are careful about your history of grammar, most all “grammar” is. I say that since “etcetera” as a single word has been in common usage in English since the mid-17th century that the case is actually less clear than your analysis implies. This is (though legitimate) a question of the serial comma only under the most pretentious of considerations (which I’m not entirely immune to, but not here). =)

j. d. o'conal
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Perhaps I did go into too much detail and I would’ve been better to stick with this summary by P. Peters in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage: ‘So the 'framing’ of etc. with commas is no longer considered essential, and left to authors' and editors' discretion.‘ However, that would’ve left my answer only as a criticism of yours without fleshing out the reason behind it.

j. d. o'conal
-

Perhaps I did go into too much detail and it would’ve been better to only include this summary of the issue The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters 2004, p. 190): ‘So the 'framing’ of _etc. with commas is no longer considered essential, and left to authors' and editors' discretion.‘ However, that would’ve left my answer only as a criticism of yours without fleshing out the reason behind it.

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1

lametón [ Editor ]

Etc, etcetera, et cetera. It comes from the latin "and the rest". (Ceteris paribus, the famous economists phrase, meaning "taking the rest as constant, equal" has the same root). That means, whenever you are saying:

I'm interested in buying apples, pears, potatoes, etc.

You are really saying

I'm interested in buying apples, pears, potatoes, and the rest.

Those enumerations need to have a final comma in english, as I previously commented in here:

http://www.irosetta.com/questions/4/when-to-use-commas-with-and-and-or/18#18

Also, on everyday language you tend to make a longer pause there, so the comma is further accentuated. For example, in spanish you wouldn't use a comma for:

Querría comprar manzanas, peras, patatas y fresas.

But you would write this:

Querría comprar manzanas, peras, patatas, y demás.

And hence you say:

Querría comprar manzanas, peras, patatas, etcétera.
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