Tag Archives: Oxford comma

Serial commas

serial commas meme, martha stewartCommas: those little morsels of goodness that few authors understand. In general, serial commas are used to resolve ambiguity. When we have a list in a sentence, not using commas can create some interesting situations.

Comma use is part of what we call ‘style:’

  1. Google says: “Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence fluency, and the writer’s voice — all contribute to the style of a piece of writing.” 
We use a style to ensure consistency in our phrasing and punctuation, and make it easier for the reader to enjoy the book. The books I use to help me with that are Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation.   In my opinion, as an avid reader, the style that always uses the serial comma is less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the legendary book dedication often attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as meaning that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. That is actually rather hilarious because Ayn Rand is famously atheist in her beliefs. (I’m not qualified to say whether or not God believes in Ayn Rand.)

Lets-eat-GrandmaHowever, a comma before and removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them. For example, in the following manner:

To God, Ayn Rand and my parents. Hemingway used and in place of commas in much of his work, and it was quite readable.

A famous example reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.  This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives.

Although Merle Haggard has been married five time, he was never married to either Kris Kristofferson or Robert Duvall,  and a serial comma would resolve that inaccuracy:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

chicago manual of styleI’ve seen people launch into rants  against serial commas, claiming that it’s too many and looks awful.

I’m just going to say that argument  is hogwash.

Who are your writing for, yourself or an unknown reader who may one day buy your book?

If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like.

But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader: consider what is going to make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying.

Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.

 

 

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Self Publishing, writer, writing

Comatose Ambiguity

CommasThe Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend or require the use of the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma.

Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.

 

IN GENERAL, OXFORD COMMAS ARE INTENDED TO RESOLVE AMBIGUITY:

ambiguityThe style that consistently uses the Oxford comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the oft quoted, but (according to Snopes) mythological, book dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. A comma before and removes the ambiguity:

To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or define them. For example, in the following manner:

 To God, Ayn Rand and my parents.

I have used both styles in my writing, but am leaning more and more toward the Oxford comma.

Another wonderful example, reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden, was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about country music legend, Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

Whoa!  Who knew that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives? An Oxford comma would eliminate this hilarious inaccuracy:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

I usually argue for consistent use of the serial comma because:

  1. Use of the Oxford comma is consistent with conventional practice as suggested by the Chicago Manual of Style, which is my primary reference manual.
  2. It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better, so reading passages aloud will flow more easily. This is something to consider if you intend to have your work turned into an audiobook.
  3. Properly used, it resolves ambiguity.
  4. Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list, for example, when consistently included before the last item even when and or or is present.
  5. Its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists. (My parents, Ayn Rand and God.)

Common arguments against use of the serial comma:

  1. Improperly used, the comma may introduce ambiguity, and many authors are not clear on its proper use.
  2. I agree that it can be redundant in a simple list because the words  and & or  can serve to mark the logical separation between the final two items, when the final two items are a compound single item. (My parents, Marge and Bob.)
  3. When space is at a premium, the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text—not usually an issue in a novel or short story. This is a journalistic issue common when writing for a newspaper.

It is fashionable for wouldbe writers to argue against using the Oxford comma, claiming it is unnecessary. However, I frequently see manuscripts where good authors fail to delineate a list in such a way that their intention is clear, by using and & or, thus resulting confusion, and a book that is less enjoyable than it should be.

_72982736_vikings courtesy of BBCThe Oxford comma is the basis of many violent quarrels in writing groups–people tend to be rabidly for or against either side. There is common ground here, people so put away the torches!

Good writing incorporates proper use of both styles and, above all else, avoids ambiguity.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Blogger, blogging, Books, Fantasy, Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, WordPress, writer, writing