When a list doesn’t include everything

The newspaper reported a burglary, and said that “four items were taken, including a DVD player, a laptop computer, an iPhone, and a flat-screen TV.”

The newspaper did not report the violation in Associated Press style:

“Use include to introduce a series when the items that follow are only part of the total: The price includes breakfast. The zoo includes lions and tigers.

In other words, if the newspaper had omitted one of the items, the use of “including” would have been proper. Silly, perhaps, since there were only four items, but proper.

Many usage authorities say that “includes” should be used only when something has been excluded. In The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein says that “include” “usually suggests that the component items are not being mentioned in their entirety.” The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style also says that “include” “suggests that what follows is a partial list not an exhaustive list.” The Columbia Guide to Standard American English is more absolutist: “be careful to use include only of incomplete lists.”

The prohibition on an inclusive “includes” has some support in the dictionary, which defines “include” with words like “part of the whole.” But while it’s true that there are more specific ways to indicate a list that’s complete, there is virtually no difference between saying that “the United States comprises fifty states” and “the United States includes fifty states.”

“Includes” obviously excludes things when large quantities are under discussion, as in “car parts include a carburetor, fuel tank, and steering wheel.” It’s only when the numbers are relatively small that the guidance over “includes” really kicks in, and the “suggestion” to use “include” only with a partial list becomes more understandable.

Take that burglary. If the article said ten items had been taken, and “included” only four, everyone would understand that six items were not listed. But if the news article had said that “a number of items” had been taken, “including a DVD player, a laptop computer, an iPhone, and a flat-screen TV,” most readers would probably assume that more than the four items listed had been taken—even if it was only four.

In other words, the use of “includes” is relative to what it is describing. With a smaller, more countable list, you’d probably be better off using “includes” only if it’s obvious that you’re leaving some items out—for example, if you’re giving only six of the nine positions on a baseball team. If you listed all nine, you could just say “The nine positions are …”

And please, whatever you do, don’t say “The positions on a baseball team include pitcher, catcher, first baseman, and more.” That would be falling into the redundancy trap.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.