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Comma before an Ampersand (&): The Definitive Guide

Comma before an Ampersand (&): The Definitive Guide

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Ask a random person about whether a comma should come before an ampersand and you’d end up getting a sigh in return.

The point is…why would you even ask a random person in the first place?

Alright, kidding aside, I’ve tried to cover this topic as comprehensively as I could, so you’ve come to the right page to seek some answers.

Let’s now get right into it and learn more about the intricacies behind these two symbols.


When should we use a comma before an ampersand (&)?

A comma must precede an ampersand when writing parenthetical citations and reference lists based on the APA format. In parenthetical in-text citations, at least three names are required in order to be able to use a pre-ampersand comma. However, in the reference list, a minimum of only two authors’ names is necessary to prompt a pre-comma usage.


A background on the ampersand (&)

An ampersand is not that stylized symbol found on the left side of a musical staff that tells you which pitch you should use. That’s actually a “G clef”.

It is rather an alternative way to represent the conjunction “and” in the written language, with some special reasons, of course.

According to Geoffrey Glaister and the Merriam, “ampersand” is the result of condensing “and,” “per se,” and “and,” in which the middle word is a Latin phrase that roughly means “in or by itself.”

Back in the days, I alternated between using the easier variations of the ampersand simply because I couldn’t get the exact symbol right when writing by hand.

I used either the one that looks like a reversed, cursive letter “E” with a horn and a tail on it, or the little “plus” sign with a huge lump on its head.

An ampersand can be seen in some of the biggest companies’ names such as AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble.

And, if you’ve tried writing a research paper adhering to the APA, you’ve certainly used lots of ampersands in your citations and references.

A comma before an ampersand in APA style is a highly crucial element to the point that carelessly misusing it invites criticisms, much more a red mark.

An ampersand works like the conjunction “and” in such a way that it conjoins or connects words.

However, it does have a more particular function which is to represent a closer and tighter collaborative effort between authors or company owners.

Deciding whether to put a comma before this notorious symbol is quite tricky because it would be dependent on which style guide you are supposed to follow.


The necessary comma before an ampersand in more detail

As mentioned, the comma before an ampersand has got something to do with the writing style guide you are going to use, especially when writing formal texts.

This also implies that one cannot just conveniently use the ampersand symbol whenever and wherever they want to.

Although an ampersand likely appears in more formalistic texts such as research papers, it may also be used in common, fixed expressions like “R&B” and “rock & roll.”

Therefore, it means that we cannot just conveniently use an ampersand to represent the word “and” in linking clauses and listing a series of items.

But, interestingly enough, we can surely use our knowledge of punctuation with regards to the word “and” to make sense of the comma before an ampersand.


Writing authors’ names in APA style

The APA organization, particularly the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, encourages the use of commas and ampersands.

APA is the go-to writing style for those people in the fields of social and behavioral sciences, albeit also used by others.

To date, the APA has already released seven manual editions and the last one was made available in 2020.

Through the years, the organization has always been keen on the usage of the pre-ampersand comma to aid clarity in citing sources of information.

And, there are two default situations where a pre-comma must be applied.

Let’s now study each of them further.


Comma before ampersand in parenthetical in-text citations

In-text citations are details indicating the source or sources of arguments and in academic research papers.

These citations may be seen in the running text or encapsulated in open and close parentheses.

As you may already know, accurately citing your sources not only reduces the possibility of red marks but also prevents you from getting sued for plagiarism.

When citing sources, an ampersand is only allowed inside the parentheses together with the last names of the authors and the year of publication.

This is also more particularly known as parenthetical in-text citations, the source details found inside the parentheses rather than in the running text.

A comma before an ampersand should be used in parenthetical citations when listing at least three authors doing collaborative work.

The Association of Pediatric Program Directors (APPD) has highlighted the aim of showcasing research works published annually to see whether the entire organization’s goals have been met accordingly (Pitt, Poitevien, & Blankenburg, 2021).

The comma is mandatory before the ampersand in the example sentence above and should not be carelessly left out when following the APA style.

You may also refer to this particular comma as the Oxford or serial comma before an ampersand, rather than using the word “and” if you want to gain more info about it online.


Comma before ampersand in the references section

Now, moving on to your reference list, let’s discuss how to punctuate ampersands properly.

Apparently, in-text citations should also be exhaustively listed in the references section to prevent any form of plagiarism or misinformation.

In the reference section, a comma must also come before an ampersand when at least two authors are doing one research work.

Wolff, M., & Burrows, H. (2021) Planning for virtual interviews: Residency recruitment during a pandemic, Academic Pediatrics, 21(1), 2021, 24-31, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2020.10.006

And, obviously enough, a comma must also come when three authors’ names are present.

You may also call this particular comma the APA serial comma in a reference list, such as in the first line of the example below.

Swanson, H. L., Kong, J. E., & Petcu, S. D. (2019) Individual differences in math problem solving and executive processing among emerging bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 187, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2019.06.006

The default rule here is fairly easy.

An ampersand must always be used in writing a minimum of two authors’ names and a comma should always be placed before it in the reference list.

Now that we’ve learned how to correctly place our pre-commas, let us now move on to the cases that would make a pre-comma insertion incorrect.


The incorrect usage of a comma before an ampersand in APA style

A comma must not precede an ampersand in a couple of cases writing information adhering to the APA writing style.

In particular, these may apply either in the in-text citation or the reference section.

Let’s look at them using some examples.


Do not use a comma in listing two collaborative authors in a parenthetical in-text citation

Contrary to the rule in writing the complete reference, a comma must not be placed before an ampersand linking two names in a parenthetical citation.

The comma must be placed before the publication year instead.

The same variable was tested in another setting but gained dissimilar results (Thomas & Fetchner, 2014).

But, note that this rule changes when listing the complete details in the reference section, and thus, a comma must be placed before the ampersand.

The ampersand in the citations symbolizes strong cooperation between the two researchers, which is, again, its main difference with “and.”

Most importantly, do not use an ampersand if you would like to cite the source as part of the running text, as opposed to the parenthetical way.

In this case, the word “and” must be used instead while encapsulating the publication year only.

Thomas and Fetchner (2014) found dissimilar results upon testing the same variable in another setting.


Do not use a comma when writing fixed expressions in the running text

As stated in the earlier part of this post, ampersands can be used in some fixed expressions, including company names, book titles, and some common phrases.

This implies that a writer is free to use this symbol even in the running text, which is an exception to the rule.

A similar argument on double possessives was suggested by Lynn Truss (2009) in the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

In the example above, a comma does not come before the ampersand as this is the original book title which may be strictly considered should any legal issues occur.

This can also be applied when writing down other common phrases when they appear in the running text, especially with acronyms and company names.

In a nutshell, the APA format is relatively rigid in terms of the rules because its main goal is to make texts extra credible and much easier to cross-reference with.


Other considerations to take in using ampersands

Although the APA style is loaded with lots of advantages in terms of making texts more reliable, it is not the only style guide that dictates the information we consume.

Other style guides are also being used by other fields of discipline and industries.

Generally speaking, the history and business publishing industries follow the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).

Whereas, the fields of arts and humanities adhere to the Modern Language Association (MLA) style.

Both style guides discourage the use of ampersands, and they suggest replacing them with the word “and” instead.

The comma before “and” is also guided by quite a number of guidelines, which you may find here in ample detail.

CMOS generally regards the usage of an ampersand as an abbreviation, and therefore, should be avoided as much as possible.

Exceptions may apply, though, when companies insist on using the ampersand symbol in their company names for legal purposes.

The MLA also supports the notion of spelling the word “and” out, especially in research titles, citations, and references.

Writing references in MLA style is otherwise different from the APA in such a way that the former suggests writing the authors’ names in full length rather than in the last name and first-name initial basis.

Frequently Asked Questions on Comma Before “Ampersand”


How do we use an ampersand?

An ampersand is used in writing parenthetical in-text citations and reference lists guided by the APA writing style. It is also used in fixed expressions like company names such as AT&T, common abbreviations like R&B, or in book titles like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. 


Should we put a comma before an ampersand in a list?

Yes, if the list consists of at least two authors’ names in the reference section of an academic paper adhering to the APA style. A pre-ampersand comma also applies when attaching the last name of a series of authors in parenthetical in-text citations. However, an ampersand must be avoided at all costs as a convenient substitute for “and” in regular informal texts.


Is a serial comma necessary before “or?”

The answer depends on the clarity of the text. If the serial list is concise and well-categorized enough not to create any ambiguity, then the serial comma is optional. But, when the list is written at length which may prompt unnecessary misinformation, a comma is highly recommended to be used. “Pregnancy symptoms include nausea, a heightened sense of smell, or frequent urination.



There are a bit too many things to consider, right? Yeah, I feel you. But, which style should you really choose at the end of the day?

I’d hate to say this, but the answer is mainly dependent on the purpose of your writing, as well as the institution in which the text is going to be submitted.

After all, the success of your text will be determined by the authorities checking your paper, such as your professor or editor.

And, of course, the least I could say is just to stay consistent with the writing style you use throughout the text.