Adding Grace to Items in a Series

One of the most elegant lines in The Canterbury Tales occurs in the prologue, in the description of the knight. "He was a verray, parfit, gentil knyght," Chaucer writes.

Chaucer knew something that all good writers know: when it comes to items in a series, three is the magic number. 

We often see, however, series that contain far more than three items. In those series, the writer adds item after item, often with no regard for their number, order, or rhythm.

Take this sentence, for instance, from the abstract of a 2017 article by the political scientist Janice Fine; it appears in Politics & Society:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, domestic worker protections, wage theft laws, “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications, and fair scheduling laws.

She gets "cities, counties, and states" right—three items, and in ascending order of size to boot—but ends the sentence with a list that goes on and on and on. And on. What's more, there is no attention to the rhythm of the list. For in addition to limiting lists to three items, a good list, rhythmically, moves from shortest item to longest item.

How to fix this? Well, one suggestion is to limit the list to three items, arranged from shortest to longest. Here is one solution:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

The author might object that the list is incomplete. OK; add, then, "among others":

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted, among others, higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

Still, what if the author insists that all the items must be listed? Fortunately, there is an app for that: the phrase "as well as." By joining one set of items to another with "as well as," the author can have her cake and eat it too:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, domestic worker protections, and paid sick leave and family leave, as well as wage theft laws, fair scheduling laws, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

Now we have a sentence with a long but graceful list.