Speaking of lemons, I must share with you something that leaves a really sour taste in my mouth. The AP Stylebook has recently been reissued in celebration of its 60th birthday. The updated 500-page volume boasts 90-plus changes and additions, yet it fails to validate the need for a mandatory Oxford comma in a series – as has been determined by the Chicago Manual of Style. Proponents on both sides of this ongoing debate concerning whether to use that vital comma cite arguments to support their positions, but some of them simply don’t make grammatical sense when it comes to the issues of clarity and consistency. What’s the Oxford comma? you may wonder. It’s that comma before the coordinating conjunction that separates a series from its last element.
At MentalFloss.com, you will find an interesting discussion on the pros and cons on this topic. I want to tell you that I have reviewed the arguments on both sides, and I’ve found nothing to persuade me that the comma is unnecessary. Let’s take a look at some structures similar to those presented.
Henry walked to the market with his grandparents, Amy Brown, and George Durant.Henry walked to the market with his grandparents, Amy Brown and George Durant.
Does the second sentence, without the comma, say the same thing as the first? No. The first sentence says Henry was accompanied by at least four people: his grandparents, Amy, and George. The second sentence clearly states that Amy and George are his grandparents, so there are just two people besides Henry. Yet both sentences are grammatically correct. Which one is correct? That depends on what the writer means.
Then we get to the classic example that has appeared numerous times in debates on the Oxford comma. Tell me, dearies, which one do you think is correct?
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
After a good chuckle, we can see the problem here. Unless the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God (a most unlikely situation), we need the Oxford comma – as used in the first sentence.
Sometimes, clarity and accuracy require us to rethink a sentence that seems to need this comma – or perhaps make a change. Consider these examples:The fabric comes in red, blue, green, yellow, and orange stripes.
The fabric comes in red, blue, green, yellow and orange stripes.
What does the first sentence say? It implies the fabric comes in four solids and one striped pattern. The second sentence, however, seems to say the fabric comes in three solids and one yellow and orange striped pattern. Which is correct? You can’t tell, but they're not the same.
Finally, we need to be consistent; otherwise, our readers will think that we sit on a grammatical fence, one leg dangling on either side. Or they’ll be sure our editor was sleeping on the job. Neither case will earn us kudos in the excellence department.
What do you think, dearies? Is it better to use the Oxford comma, which is correct in all cases? Go for the style that credits us with being parented by Ayn Rand and God? Or limp along on two opinions that appear to our readers to be typos or bad editing? May I get you some more tea? I can slice another lemon.
|Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew|
When time and schedule permit, the Style Maven relaxes on her porch with a mid-morning cup of tea and her favorite book, the Chicago Manual of Style. Other times, her alter ego busies herself knitting doggie vests and sundry other pretties. Do stop by and say hello to her at The Procraftinator.