One of the many paperwork activities at my part-time job is a communications log. This is for messages between staff members, and isn’t really formal; however, it can be subpoenaed if a lawsuit were to come against the company. All the paperwork we do, including more important documents, is full of grammar problems. I will withhold making fun of the person responsible, and I ask you to as well. I do this for two reasons. First, these papers are not intended for the public, and not really professional. Second, just about every sheet of paperwork we have in the company has a grammar error somewhere in the printing as well. The bosses don’t take the time to clean it up, why should the low-paid pawns?
All that said, I will copy one sentence from the communications log, changing the names, but nothing else.
“Susan Billy and JOE gOT There BalloT’S In the Mail TO day”
Now I will put the sentence the way it should be except for the commas. I’ll fix the capitals, misused apostrophe, and incorrect word choice.
“Susan Billy and Joe got their ballots in the mail today.”
Alright class, how many people got their ballots? Three?
I actually corrected the sentence in the communications log by adding one comma. It now reads:
“Susan, Billy and Joe got their ballots in the mail today.”
Now how many got their ballots? Still three? Two?
The problem is that some people don’t put a comma in front of the “and” when listing items in a series. Often, this doesn’t cause any problems. (It is, I admit, technically allowed according to the writing manuals.) In some cases, however, it will confuse the reader. Here Susan is a staff member who needs information about Billy and Joe. Two people got ballots. If three people got them, a comma should be placed after Billy’s name.
In the sentence in question, the comma is used to separate the person addressed and the information being given. When people don’t put a comma before the and in list sentences, confusion can occur.