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When writing a list of items, should they be alphabetical?

The late Jurassic periods are Tithonian, Kimmeridgian, and Oxfordian.

better?

The late Jurassic periods are Kimmeridgian, Oxfordian, and Tithonian.

  • I think the topic of ordering comma-separated list elements is a good question, and one not covered yet on this site. (At least I was unable to find a duplicate.) – Llewellyn Oct 17 at 18:54
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    The items in your lists are not separated by "Oxford" commas. An Oxford (Harvard, serial) comma is used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items. – Michael Harvey Oct 18 at 15:06
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    In fact, the OP question does not have any Oxford comma in the first sentence, but a period/full stop in its place. I tried editing it but you have to make a 6 character change. – Michael Harvey Oct 19 at 6:08
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    "The single digit numbers are eight, five, four, nine, one, seven, six, three, two, and zero." Better? – Džuris Oct 19 at 7:41
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    this question is about lists in general. Oxford commas (which as pointed out, only refers to the comma appearing before "and") are not actually relevant to the question and so I've submitted an edit removing the reference to them – Tristan Oct 19 at 11:30
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There's no rule about the order of listed elements, so this is not a question of grammar, but of style.

There are a few different approaches you could take:

  1. An alphabetical order might make it easier for readers to remember the elements. (However, if it's about ease of memorisation, a better approach might be to see if one particular order creates a memorable word when putting the initials together, and use that.)

  2. Sometimes, you can go by what sounds best. I know this is really subjective, but for me it usually involves the starting letter of each word and the number of syllables. In your example, "Oxfordian" and "Tithonian" have the same number of syllables, so if it's a matter of style, I wouldn't squeeze the longer one between them.

  3. Often, lists get sorted in order of importance, by either listing the most or least important first. For example, if the rest of the paragraph were to focus on one of these periods, I would list that one last.

  4. However, in your example, you are talking about geological eras, so I would actually sort them chronologically. Maybe you could describe this as the order that "makes sense". (For example, in this related question, the asker suggests ordering articles of clothing from head to feet.)

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    In some contexts, your #4 is referred to as the natural order: One would be much more likely to say "one, two, three" than "one, three, two". – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Oct 19 at 0:22
  • @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- Thanks. That was the term I was looking for. :) – Llewellyn Oct 19 at 17:33
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No.

The time periods would be better sorted in order they occurred instead of alphabetical.

If not time related then use other factors such as size that has more meaning than their first letters.

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No. And particularly not in your example of a list of historical periods, in which the obvious listing would be in chronological order. Alphabetical order would be perverse! In most other cases, it would be merely unnecessary.

Also, you misunderstand what the 'Oxford comma' is. In 'The late Jurassic periods are Kimmeridgian, Oxfordian, and Tithonian.' the Oxford comma comes before 'and'. The rest are just commas.

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There's nothing right or wrong with alphabetical order for nouns. Like a lot of English, there's no explicit rule but there's a way that sounds best. It often depends on what the items are. If history is involved, chronological order makes sense. If they're items you'd find on the shelf at an auto parts store, sorting by function helps the reader find them.

If the list is made of adjectives, on the other hand: a dragon that is "great, old, and green" sounds fine, but "old, green, and great" sounds like the speaker is clumsily making it up as they go along. What's happening here is covered in "The Elements of Eloquence" by Mark Forsyth (2013), where he says

"... adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac. It's an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out."

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    I'm struggling to imagine what a rectangular green French silver whittling knife might look like. – Bob says reinstate Monica Oct 18 at 16:55
  • @BobsaysreinstateMonica Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. – J.G. Oct 19 at 6:23
  • @BobsaysreinstateMonica while that is a strange object to describe I can definitely picture what that would be. Some parts of that are a bit incongruous, for example whittling knives aren't typically rectangular, and knives made of silver aren't usually green, but it could be that the knife is just an unusual shape and has a green painted handle – Kevin Wells Oct 19 at 17:42
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    @BobsaysreinstateMonica Also the real point of that example is that if you rearrange the adjectives it sounds entirely crazy to an English speaker. For example, a French silver lovely whittling little rectangular green knife makes even less sense and implies things about the knife that aren't implied by the order in the original example – Kevin Wells Oct 19 at 17:46

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