The Oxford Comma: A Matter of Clarity

Monday, January 12, 2015

Am I a grammar nerd? Yes and no. I believe that everyone should know the grammar rules, but I also think it is okay to break them if there is a reason. Ignorance, laziness, or just plain eccentricity aren’t good reasons. (I’m not a fan of E.E. Cummings.) Emphasis, timing, and readability are. And if a reader will think me pretentious for using “whom,” I’ll use “who” instead.
But grammar nerd or not, I’m a fan of the Oxford comma.
For those of you who don’t know what the Oxford comma is, it’s the comma that comes before the conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) that introduces the end of a series. For example, this sentence uses an Oxford comma: “The American flag is red, white, and blue.” This one doesn’t: “The American flag is red, white and blue.” It’s called the Oxford comma because Oxford University’s stylebook says to put it in. (It is also called the Harvard comma, for a similar reason, or the serial comma.) Why does it matter whether a writer uses it? I’ll explain in a minute.
First, though, I’ll tell you why I’m writing about it now.
I have an online critique partner who doesn’t use the Oxford comma. Grammatically, use of the Oxford comma is optional, so I grit my teeth and defer to her style choice. Then she sent me a chapter where she actually stuck one in, and it wasn’t needed for clarity. Although it killed me to do it, I took it out for consistency. But her use prompted me to write this blog.
The first rule of writing is clarity, and that’s why grammar rules exist. There are many times when a sentence is clear with or without the Oxford comma. “The American flag is red, white and blue” is an example. On the other hand, it is easy to write a sentence where the absence of the Oxford comma creates ambiguity. If that’s intentional, fine, but it usually isn’t.
Consider the sentences in the graphic at the head of this post. “Betty went camping with her sisters, Debbie and Carol” could mean that there were at least five people on the camping trip: Betty, two or more sisters, Debbie, and Carol. Or it could mean that there were three people: Betty and her two sisters, whose names are Debbie and Carol. If you consistently use the Oxford comma, the reader will know which you mean.
It is possible to rearrange the sentence to clarify its meaning without using the Oxford comma. If there were five people on the camping trip, you can say, “Betty went camping with Debbie, Carol, and Betty’s sisters.” But if there were three people on the camping trip, you may have to say “her two sisters, Debbie and Carol.” If you rarely or never use the Oxford comma, the phrase is still ambiguous.
Or consider this sentence: “My favorite ice cream flavors are caramel, white chocolate and orange and cream.” The use of the extra “and” indicates that one of the flavors has two parts to its name, but is it white chocolate and orange or orange and cream? The use of the Oxford comma clarifies the sentence, making clear that the flavors are either “caramel, white chocolate and orange, and cream” or “caramel, white chocolate, and orange and cream.
Then there’s the third example. “Still half asleep, Jeff got dressed, made toast and put on deodorant.” Did Jeff put the deodorant on himself or the toast? Grammatically, there is only one way to read the sentence. If it weren’t a series of three, there would be no reason to put a comma after “dressed.” So, read correctly, the sentence means that Jeff put the deodorant on himself. But someone who is reading quickly might miss that nicety and read the last two items in the series as one. After all, who knows what Jeff might do when he is half asleep? An Oxford comma slows the reader down and makes the meaning clear.
Although clarity is the first rule of writing, consistency is also important, especially since knowing how someone writes helps the reader find clarity in the sentence. And because there are times when I need the Oxford comma for clarity, I chose to use it all the time for consistency.
Still, the Oxford comma is technically optional. If you choose not to use it, I won’t unfriend you.
But I will let you know when your sentences are unclear.

No comments:

Post a Comment