Friday, July 1, 2011

The Oxford Comma

All this fuss about dropping the Oxford comma? You bet.

In the new open suburb, Max the Dog could run free with Harold and Maude, Rinky Dink, Lulu and Mew, Sylvester and Rat, from morning until night.

The sentence above sets up a list of neighborhood animals that Max runs with. The author combines Harold and Maude as well as Lulu and Mew as one, perhaps because they're from one family, or because they're both cats. Rinky Dink seems to be alone. But what about Sylvester and Rat? On first reading, with our ears attuned to the combined names, we probably heard another combination--Sylvester and Rat as two neighbor dogs perhaps. But then nothing follows the two, and it seems that maybe Sylvester and Rat are meant to be separate. But who knows for sure?

That's where the serial (Oxford) comma comes in. If a comma is ALWAYS included before the last "and" in a series, we always know that the list is ended, that the last does not belong, possibly, with the prior. Sure, some sentences are simple series, one item after another. But our eyes get trained, and if they always see the comma before "and," they will read correctly when meeting the more difficult listing.

In the new open suburb, Max the Dog could run free with Harold and Maude, Rinky Dink, Lulu and Mew, Sylvester, and Rat, from morning until night.

In the above, is there any way to mistake Rat for being part of Sylvester? No. Commas are for clarity.

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And there's more comma misuses and omissions that make me pause and read again:

Commas surrounding interior phrases and clauses are often left out of works, most often one being used and not the other, such as in this example, which I had to read twice:

Although the period was a time of renewal for the country, during the Restoration battles along the front line continued.

On first reading, I had thought “Restoration” was being used as an adjective to describe “battles,” and anticipated “during the Restoration battles … something something something happened…” Instead, “Restoration” was intended as a noun here, to mean, during this time period, battles continued. A comma after it, would have helped immensely:

Although the period was a time of renewal for the country, during the Restoration, battles along the front line continued.


A comma following an introductory phrase is often omitted, leaving the reader unsure where the break in thought is. Often the last word of the clause can be read as an adjective to describe the next word. And, again, the sentence has to be read twice.

When the queen relinquished her crown jewels scattered the stone path of her exit.

On first reading, I read “her crown jewels” as a phrase, meaning the jewels of her crown. Then there was no subject for “scattered” and I had to read again. A comma following an introductory clause clarifies where the opening thought ends and the following thought begins:

When the queen relinquished her crown, jewels scattered the stone path of her exit.

This is not to say that a sentence can’t be complex. Faulkner is one of my favorite authors. This passage, from
Absalom! Absalom! is long and difficult conceptually, but it is perfectly clear syntactically due to proper comma use:

Perhaps I couldn’t even have wanted more than that, couldn’t have accepted less, who even at nineteen must have known that living is one constant and perpetual instant when the arras-veil before what-is-to-be hangs docile and even glad to the lightest naked thrust if we had dared, were brave enough (not wise enough: no wisdom needed here) to make the rending gash. Or perhaps it is no lack of courage either: not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward, tugs its tenuous prisoner arteries and veins and prisoning in its turn that spark, that dream which, as the globy and complete instant of its freedon mirrors and repeats (repeats? creates, reduces to a fragile evanescent iridescent sphere) all of space and time and massy earth, relicts the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death but only how to recreate, renew; and dies, is gone, vanished: nothing-- but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth, from which the dreamer, waking, says not ‘Did I but dream?’ but rather says, indicts high heaven’s very self with: ‘Why did I wake since waking I shall never sleep again?’

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