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There's a well-known split in English between those who use the so-called serial or Oxford comma, a comma before the last item in a list like Able, Baker, and Charlie, and those who don't. That leads me to wonder: Among other languages that put commas in such a list, which languages put a comma before the last item, which don't, and which have a split like English's?

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    It's not a language thing. It's a writing thing. English writing -- especially English punctuation -- is pretty chaotic and leads to silly rules that don't work but generate lots of weird ideas. – jlawler Mar 10 '14 at 19:57
  • Yes it's definitely not within regular linguistics, but it probably is within NLP since parsing and generating written language has to deal with punctuation and orthographic norms. I'm pretty sure some spoken languages have something vaguely equivalent to these to these by the way. Japanese と springs to mind. – hippietrail Mar 10 '14 at 23:24
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    I thought the study of orthography is part of linguistics. (Indeed, this site has fifty-four orthography-tagged questions besides this one.) – msh210 Mar 11 '14 at 1:12
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    msh210, well, potentially anything related to languages falls into the realm of Linguistics. But many (if not all) linguists will tell you that it deals mostly with spoken language, sounds and whatever this entails. Written language is less prominent, e.g. an "exception" would be when you're dealing with the relationship grapheme-phoneme (the written letter vs how you read it). And indeed, many questions of those you linked to ask about readings of some spellings, vowel lengths, and so on. Lastly, your question is fine here, @jlawler was just pointing out something about your question. :) – Alenanno Mar 12 '14 at 11:22
  • @msh210: No we made conscious decisions to include a few topics on this site that wouldn't normally come under the vanilla definition of linguistics. We decided to include writing systems and natural language processing for instance. – hippietrail Mar 12 '14 at 13:52
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In addition to most European languages, Chinese does not use the serial comma. Moreover, Chinese uses a different comma for enumeration from the one used to set off clauses. For instance, you would say

那天晚上,他吃了鱼、牛肉、虾和螃蟹。

That night, he ate fish, beef, shrimp, and crab.

Note that is the regular comma, while is the enumeration comma.

Another difference in a very related topic is in the usage of final commas in non-exhaustive lists. For example, you might say

Ellos compraron manzanas, plátanos, naranjas, etcétera.

他们买了苹果、香蕉、橙子等等。

They bought apples, bananas, oranges, etc.

Note that Spanish and English both use a comma before et cetera, while Chinese does not for the equivalent expression 等等.

  • I think the use of a comma before "etc." in an example like yours in English follows its use before "and" in any similar list: those who include one include the other. Anyway, +1, and thanks. – msh210 Mar 19 '14 at 0:36
  • Indeed, perfectly natural for English. On the other hand, the weird thing is that Spanish does not use the serial comma but uses a comma before "etcétera." – Tony Mar 19 '14 at 0:37
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In German it is considered an error to put a comma before the word "und".

  • In Dutch as well. (Not a surprise because the two languages are closely related.) – 11684 Mar 12 '14 at 11:35
  • English is also related though not as closely, yet German uses a lot more commas than English does. It's a useful hint to guess that English might've been written by a German speaker if it has lots of commas where we wouldn't normally put them. But yes the serial comma seems not to be amongst these extras. – hippietrail Mar 12 '14 at 13:54
  • English doesn't have comma placement rules; most people put commas in when writing to represent (and interpret commas when reading to represent) a distinctive intonation contour that would disambiguate phrase separations in speech. Handy device. Remember, writing is sposta be a representation of speech, not the other way round. – jlawler Mar 12 '14 at 14:56
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    Not at least in lists ("A, B, C oder D"). The rules are all here: duden.de/sprachwissen/rechtschreibregeln/komma – fdb Mar 12 '14 at 15:11
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    @jlawler: Well English does have comma placement rules. It's just that it doesn't have a language regulation academy so anybody can publish a style guide with the rules they like and those publishers can publish rules to contradict each other's. Still there are people gaining or losing marks on exam papers and stuff for wrong comma usage. \-: – hippietrail Mar 18 '14 at 5:48
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In Vietnamese, the serial comma is optional, i.e. you can either put it or not. It is preferably omitted, however.

E.g.
Ở đây có một quả táo, một quả lê, và một quả chuối.
and
Ở đây có một quả táo, một quả lê và một quả chuối.
are both grammatically correct, but the latter is preferred.

In case a sentence is really ambiguous like this: A meme about Oxford comma (Though this one is not, but it's an easy example to find), you a serial comma should be added to clarify. These cases are rare, however.

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Russian does not use "Oxford comma". It is considered a mistake. You can put a comma before "and" but only if it connects two phrases. If Oxford comma were allowed, it would create ambiguity (unlike English where it in fact disambiguates sometimes). We also do not put a comma before the expression equivalent of "etc" because in Russian it is a contraction of "and so forth", "и т. д.", something like "and s. f.".

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