Tuesday, July 16, 2013

This Book Is Dedicated to…You’re Kidding, Right?

Hello, dearies. I’m so glad you stopped by. I have a pitcher of fresh tea in the refrigerator to cool us off on this hot day, so make yourselves comfortable. I’ll get out the glasses, ice, and sugar; and I just sliced a lemon.

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.

24 comments :

  1. With you all the way on this one. And I always have been.

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  2. Me too, my dear Ms Maven (ooh, there's another question for you: period after Mr., Mrs., or Ms.? Or no period?). And, see, I even managed to use an Oxford comma there ;-)

    Ta ra

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  3. I am a staunch proponent of the Oxford comma, no matter how many times my critique group argues the merits. It is the difference between "Let's eat grandma." and "Let's eat, grandma." Alas,it appears to have gone out of fashion, along with common sense and good manners.

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  4. Yup, I pro the comma. It's to easy to misread the true intent of the sentence.

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  5. My high school English teacher taught us, "Comma and, comma but, comma for, and around extra stuff." So far, it's worked for me, but I do try to be consistent, and I'm an Oxford comma gal.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  6. Clever way to make a point. I've always been fond of that comma, but did not know it had a proper name. (smile)

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  7. This is an excellent post. Your examples help clarify the point for those who are not convinced.

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  8. Stuart, as you've no doubt observed, clarity in writing is a disappearing art. It's good to know that some of us are still waving that flag.

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  9. We'll address those periods in another post, Elle. Splendid suggestion!

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  10. You're so right, Diana. Some things should not go out of style. As the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." (The Style Maven apologizes for this grammatical lapse; it fit so well that I made an exception — with quotation marks, of course, so you'd know I know better.)

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  11. Wow, 'Oxford Comma' ... sure does sound important ... but that's what Homie was taught to use ... but I do recall (somewhere in the deep, dark, and dank recesses of my so-called mind) a movement in the 70's to eliminate it ... never made sense to moi.

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    1. Christopher, it seems the 60s and 70s were decades of change. You're right to stick to the old school of thought in this case. :-)

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  12. I love the Oxford comma. My thriller writer friends tell me it isn't used in thrillers so that the pace keeps rolling along. It is not typically used in newspapers, as a space saver. But there are those times when you really need it, and if even one exists, I think you need to go back and add them all in for consistency.

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    1. Yes, Kathryn, consistency is the name of the game. It goes hand in hand with clarity, regardless of genre.

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  13. Yes, Terry, consistency is so important. Glad to know you're an Oxford comma girl! :-)

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  14. I didn't know the name either, Maryann, until a couple years ago when a business associate and I were debating what I always referred to in my mind as a series comma. Fortunately, I didn't mention my name for it, and she called it the Oxford comma. I had to look it up to be sure we were talking about the same thing. We were.

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  15. Thank you for your comment, Kathy S. I try to use examples because they always help me to understand a point, concept, or rule that has previously been ambiguous or somehow escaped me altogether.

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  16. I had to truly chuckle at this. My editor friend and I have truly different ideas of how commas should be used.

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    1. Patbean, differences of opinion seem to occur on a regular basis between writers and editors. :-)

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  17. I vote FOR the Oxford comma! Great examples--it really DOES make a difference. I had to learn this new rule when I switched from newspaper writing to fiction.

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    1. Good vote, Heidiwriter. Unfortunately, those habits can be hard to break.

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  18. I have other issues with comma use too. I have other issues with comma use, too. Comma or not? Both are correct, dearies. Which shall it be?

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    1. Style Maven, I think we have the basis for another discussion. What do you think?

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  19. This blog earned a Bean's Pat as blog pick of the day. Check it out at: http://patbean.wordpress.com

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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