Mental Floss’ Article on Comma Usage (Hint: Consider Clarity & Economy)

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The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars

According to the article  the Oxford comma, “the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list,” is predominately used to enhance the clarity of a given passage. While I agree with this style, Oxford University Press style, because I believe that  clarity is paramount, others prefer economy (keep it simple and allow the reader to move on). Whatever the style, just don’t let it get in the way of your message!

Pro: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

This example from the Chicago Manual of Style shows how the comma is necessary for clarity. Without it, she is taking a picture of two people, her mother and father, who are the president and vice president. With it, she is taking a picture of four people.

Con: “Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.”

This example from the 1934 style book of the New York Herald Tribune shows how a comma before “and” can result in a lack of clarity. With the comma, it reads as if Mr. Smith was the donor of the cup, which he was not.

And then there is this example, which could have been resolved by the use of the semicolon.
“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It’s from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There’s only so much a comma can do.

Okrent, Arika. “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.” Mental Floss, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 Dec. 2014.

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