A story by Peter Landesman in the July 11 NY Times Magazine begins:
On Dec. 14 of last year, just hours after being hauled out of a hole in the ground by American forces, Saddam Hussein received his first visitors as a prisoner of war: two Americans, L. Paul Bremer III, at the time the top United States administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of American-led forces in Iraq; and four prominent Iraqis—Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and now Iraq’s national security adviser; Adnan Pachachi, the foreign minister of Iraq before Hussein’s reign; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite representative; and Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress.
Aside from being about as far from a grab-you-by-the-lapels opener as can be imagined, this sentence is an object lesson in the problems of proper punctuation. Amid that forest of commas and semicolons, with a colon and a dash thrown in for good measure, one stands out as wrong.
The first semicolon should be a comma. The structure is “two Americans, A and B, and four Iraqis”; the fact that A and B are each followed by phrases in apposition set off by commas does not change the fact that the comma before the “A and B” phrase requires a subsequent comma to complete the pattern. But a comma there would make for awkward reading, you say? Of course it would; the entire sentence is awkward, and if I were editing copy at the Times I would have drawn a big red X over the whole thing and scrawled in the margin: Rewrite!