September 25, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: conjunctions in a list

Posted in conjunctions in a list at 9:38 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Conjunctions in a list

A reader writes:

I was just looking through the WLUT archives.  I was searching to see if you covered whether to use “and” or “or” at the end of a series started by “e.g.”  So is it “The dessert table had all of the usual favorites, e.g., wedding cookies, cream puffs, cake” or “…wedding cookies, cream puffs, and cake”?  I see that when you used it in your examples, you left off the conjunction.  In some cases it seems weird to me, and I’m pretty sure I would include one if I were to use “for example.”  The Internet is inconsistent (what a surprise), and my quick search didn’t yield anything specifically addressing this point.

I had to do some research on this one. I knew what I tended to do, but I didn’t know if there was a rule about this. And although I spent some time looking, I only found one mention about using conjunctions in a list. The item mentioned that some writers put ‘and’ or ‘or’ before the last item in a list—it did not comment on whether it was correct or necessary to do so or whether one conjunction was preferred over the other. Furthermore, the item was focused on lists in general, and no mention was made of whether e.g. was used. So I am forced to come to the conclusion that, on this topic, there is no set rule. Yikes! We can do whatever we want, right? There are no wrong answers! Yay!

Well, not exactly.

Oh, come on—you knew that was coming, didn’t you?

This is the story. Let’s start with e.g. As you know, e.g. is short for the Latin words, exempli gratia, meaning ‘for example,’ literally ‘for the sake of example’ but ‘for example’ will suffice. You would use e.g. to introduce examples of what you are trying to convey.

I love summer vegetables (e.g., zucchini, carrots, yellow squash).

You can substitute ‘for example’ for e.g. in most sentences.

I love summer vegetables, for example, zucchini, carrots, yellow squash.

If you use e.g., you should not use ‘etc.’ in your list because the e.g. indicates that you are only giving examples and that there are others; ‘etc.’ would be redundant.

The list of examples should not be exhaustive because you are only providing some examples. If the list is exhaustive, then you would use i.e. instead because i.e. stands for id est and means ‘that is.’ When you use i.e. you are using other words to restate what you said; you are not just providing examples.

The play is going to be performed over the weekend, i.e., on Saturday and Sunday.

In the US, both e.g. and i.e. are followed by commas; the commas are not used in GB.

Both e.g. and i.e. are preceded by punctuation marks—usually commas or parentheses as in the examples above.

Whew. I think that’s about it for e.g., at least, that’s all I have to say.

Which brings us back to whether or not to use a conjunction in a list and if so, what conjunction to use.

In the first example, above, I omitted the conjunction, and that is fine. But I think the reader is correct that if we use ‘for example,’ the addition of an ‘and’ sounds better:

I love summer vegetables, for example, zucchini, carrots, and yellow squash.

In writing, we are always striving for clarity and grace, and I think the inclusion of the conjunction is more graceful. I will be using it from now on.

And do we use ‘and’ or ‘or’? Well, that depends on the context—whichever makes more sense should be used.

The painter used one of the primary colors, e.g., yellow or blue.

I used ‘or’ because the painter was only going to use one of the colors, but I think I could have used ‘and’ as well. Just use whatever sounds best, and you’ll be okay.


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