The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.
The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.
It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.
This tweet is a case in point:
You can see from the retweets count at the bottom that it has been spread very widely on Twitter. And not surprisingly – it’s a funny line, amusingly presented.
But the tweet is misleading. Look again.
Adding an Oxford comma doesn’t fix the line – it just creates another ambiguity, albeit a lesser one: that Mandela, though not a dildo collector, is indeed an 800-year-old demigod.
There are a few ways to fix the line. The best is probably to reorder the elements: encounters with a dildo collector, an 800-year-old demigod(,) and Nelson Mandela. Use or not of the Oxford comma now makes no difference to the meaning.
Item no. 2 is an interview with Stephen King at the Atlantic in which Jessica Lahey asks him about grammar, language use, and teaching English to high-school students. It’s an interesting discussion; King has always given good copy, I think, though he’s better on writing than grammar/usage. But I want to focus on one question and answer:
Lahey: Oxford comma: yea or nay?
King: It can go either way. For instance, I like “Jane bought eggs, milk, bread, and a candy bar for her brother.” But I also like “Jane raced home and slammed the door,” because I want to feel that whole thing as a single breath.
This suggests that Stephen King doesn’t know what the Oxford comma is. It occurs before the conjunction (usually and or or) near the end of a list or series (hence serial comma) of three or more elements. Not two – that’s just a regular comma. It’s a small but surprising misconception. Maybe it’s the first time King has referred to this publicly, or the first time he’s used this type of example, so no one has corrected him.
His first example is also less than clear. I assume the comma after bread is meant to indicate that Jane bought a candy bar for her brother and the other items for general consumption. But it could just as easily be interpreted as Jane buying all the items for her brother. If we want to ensure the first interpretation, we should add and before bread: Jane bought eggs, milk(,) and bread, and a candy bar for her brother. Again, the Oxford comma after milk is optional.
King’s error, though instructive, is a little frustrating, because there’s enough confusion and misguided dogma about comma use without further noise being broadcast into the mix. For example, a blogger at the journalism school Poynter recently claimed that the Oxford comma is ungrammatical, based on rules he seems to be imagining or overapplying; I disputed his claim at the time, but didn’t hear back.
So we have several claims or beliefs here about the Oxford comma: (1) Adding one to the infamous Mandela line will fix it; (2) Jane raced home, and slammed the door contains an Oxford comma; and (3) the Oxford comma is ungrammatical. All three are wrong, and they show how easy it is to assume you know what you’re talking about when in fact you may have gone a little astray. The obvious remedy is to look it up.