Friday, December 22, 2017

Comma Before the Storm

I was an English major, which qualifies me to do just about anything…at least that’s what English majors proudly maintain. But the brouhaha (just had to work that in) over commas is just the tiniest bit absurd.

There are a lot of bad things happening in the world at this moment in time, enough so that a debate over the placement of a comma pales by comparison. If you are not familiar with the issue, here is the lowdown. You could write “We invited the rhinoceri, Washington, and Lincoln.” That would mean you invited more than 1 rhino, Washington, and Lincoln. Without the Oxford Comma, the meaning could be construed to mean that you invited Washington and Lincoln who are both rhinos.

I told you this was a stupid debate.

By the way, it’s called the Oxford comma because it was used by editors at Oxford University Press. The Associated Press and the New York Times style guides prefer no comma before the word “and,” however the Chicago Manual of Style and the U.S. Government Printing Office style manual do not. Even some British style manuals are coming down on the side of dropping the comma.

The argument for keeping the serial comma is that it reduces ambiguity, but diehard “no serial comma-ists” counter that the serial comma can have its own ambiguity and there are ways to rewrite a sentence to remove any ambiguity.

I have to admire the Chicago Manual of Style for the fact that they keep the door open just a smidge:

“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma … should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage.” In answer to a reader’s query, however, The Chicago Manual of Style Online qualifies this, saying “the serial comma is optional; some mainstream style guides (such as the Associated Press) don’t use it. … there are times when using the comma (or omitting it) results in ambiguity, which is why it’s best to stay flexible.”

So let us bend and stretch as we move on to much more important issues of the day, such as the shredding of the Constitution.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept and at BoomSpeak. He's written a mystery novel, Head Above Water which can be purchased on Amazon here.