Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

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 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 or dogmatic about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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.

22 Responses to Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

  1. Barrie says:

    Can anyone object to the late R L Trask’s advice?

    ‘Use a listing comma in a list wherever you could conceivably use the word “and” (or “or”) instead. Do not use a listing comma anywhere else.

    Put a listing comma before “and” or “or” only if this is necessary to make your meaning clear.’

  2. Timothy Gwyn says:

    If I pause when I read it out loud, I use a comma. However, I can hear my editor hissing, “Be consistent!”

  3. David Morris says:

    So if I delete every instance of an Oxford comma, does that make me a serial killer?

  4. John Cowan says:

    Barrie: You are clipping an essential point of Larry Trask’s advice, namely the part applicable to AmE, where the rule is “Always use a serial comma, unless you are writing for a newspaper, in which case never use it.” So yes, I do object.

    • Barrie says:

      My quotation, it is true, was from his summary, but his only mention of American usage in the section on the listing comma is this:

      ‘Note also that it is not usual in British usage to put a listing comma before the word “and” or “or” itself (though American usage regularly puts one there). So, in British usage, it is not usual to write

      “The Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.”

      This is reasonable, since the listing comma is a substitute for the word “and”, not an addition to it.’

  5. Alina Cincan says:

    Like you, I’m neither a proponent nor an opponent of the Oxford comma. I use it if necessary, but only when it’s absolutely needed in order to make a sentence clear.

    The tweet got me as well. I had a good laugh, but I had not tried to see whether the Oxford comma would have made a difference. So thanks for pointing that out.

  6. Peter William Carrillo says:

    What gets to me about things like this is oxford comma or not, it doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to work through the ambiguity in that tweet. It’s somewhat amusing, but people still know what it means.

  7. It’s funny that Stephen King’s interviewer didn’t cut the awkward bit about the Oxford comma. It makes you wonder if she didn’t know what it was either.

  8. Reblogged this on The Website of Jim Snowden, Author and commented:
    Nelson Mandela was more than we ever knew…

  9. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comments. A couple of things:

    Peter, yes, as with the apocryphal example “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, real confusion is unlikely. But as I wrote in my earlier post: obviously these absurd sentences have no real ambiguity – just grammatical – but they serve to draw attention to the potential for ambiguity in more everyday cases.

    Carol, I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. Maybe she did know what it was but assumed that Stephen King knew better. Many would. It’s the problem of perceived authority again.

  10. David Morris says:

    I was thinking that ‘Nelson Mandela’ might be thought as a self-sufficient reference, and that anything after it might be thought as referring to someone else, but it is very easy to construct a phrase like ‘encounters with Nelson Mandela, a champion of truth and reconciliation(,) and a devoted father and grand-father’.

  11. KeefD says:

    It annoys me somewhat when people use allegedly ambiguous sentences to demonstrate the superiority of the use, or of the non-use, of the serial comma. Serial comma users may allege that the close pairing of the final two items in a list couples them more tightly than they should be coupled, which non-users will of course disagree with. Non-users may allege that – self-contained lists apart – placing a comma between the final two items in a series has the effect of joining the final item to the following phrase more closely than the author intended, which users will of course disagree with. Whichever style you favour, you are unlikely to perceive punctuation-style-introduced ambiguity if a writer has used the style you are familiar with.

    Alleged ambiguity can sometimes be removed by using a list-introducing colon or dash (eg if your parents really were Ayn Rand and God) or by using semi-colons between sub-lists, but in every case that I have seen, any ambiguity was really the result of poor drafting rather than an inappropriate style of punctuation. Were there only one style, this would be obvious; while there are two, people will continue to indulge in punctuation one-upmanship.

    • KeefD says:

      Second sentence should have begun “Serial comma users may allege that *without the serial comma* the close pairing of the final two items in a list couples them more tightly than they should be coupled”.

  12. KeefD says:

    A question prompted by the original tweet: is it no longer customary to use hyphens between all words of an adjectival phrase formed of a prefix and a noun phrase, such as “anti-Oxford-Comma” (people) or “anti-money-laundering” (legislation) or “pro-human-rights” (campaign)? When only the first hyphen is present I tend to wonder what kind of comma is anti-Oxford, how one launders anti-money, and what rights pro-humans should have. Am I just old fashioned, having been overtaken by the increasing mistrust of hyphens that I believe began with compound nouns?

  13. Stan says:

    David: Yes. So reordering the elements seems the best approach in this case. Another solution, slightly more cumbersome, would be to repeat with: “encounters with Nelson Mandela, with an 800-year-old demigod, and with a dildo collector”.

    Keef: You’re not being old-fashioned about it at all. I frequently see the same reluctance to use more than one hyphen in compounds like this, and I suspect it has more to do with people not knowing it’s allowed, or perhaps sensing that it’s disallowed. And so the style spreads by imitation.

    I remember discussing this problem with the Anti-Queen’s English Society; the single hyphen invited misinterpretation, but hyphenating the entire name was not ideal either. Generally, though, the phrase in question is not an organisation’s name, and there should be no problem with multiple hyphenation. I’ll set aside a future blog post to look at this in more detail.

  14. […] Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King […]

  15. […] genuinely misread it, given the implications. Ditto the infamous line about Nelson Mandela being an 800-year-old demigod (and maybe a dildo […]

  16. […] worth reading in full. (Plus, I have an amusing cameo on the subject of serial commas.) We disagree on comma splices – they don’t make […]

  17. Razar Cornell says:

    The example I always give when illustrating usage of an oxford comma is:
    “I bought some marbles yesterday. They were red and green(,) and black and blue.”
    Without the oxford comma, the sentence is ambiguous. With it, it becomes clear that there are two distinct varieties of marbles in my possession. Though, as the author has pointed out already, rewording of the sentence will entirely eliminate the need for a choice.
    ie: “I bought some red and green marbles. And some black and blue ones, too.”
    This is why I feel there is still a place for the oxford comma, but only when used as prescribed (not intended as a launch-board for a ‘prescriptive vs. descriptive debate’)…

  18. Ken Leonard says:

    Except that an apositive included within a list should be separated by a semicolon, so the presence of commas means that it’s a list of three items, not two items with an apositive explaining the first.

    If Mandela is being named as a demigod, the list would be:

    ” … Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod; and a dildo collector.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      If it’s to be interpreted that way, then adding a semicolon is one of several options (though not the best one) to clarify that sense. But using semicolons in a list with appositives (two ‘p’s) is far from mandatory, and in some cases it would be most unorthodox. You may be overextending a rule that’s more of a style convention only sometimes observed in certain types of list.

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