I love grammar. In elementary school, I loved having English homework and doing all the exercises, paying attention to exactly where apostrophes and commas go and how, exactly, to use a semi-colon. (And I use too many of them, according to my search engine optimization plugin.) Which means, of course, that I love the Oxford comma.
What is the Oxford comma? It's the comma that comes before the conjunction (e.g. and, or) in a list of three or more items. Supporters of the Oxford comma believe that it provides clarity, and I wholeheartedly agree. Here are some standard examples:
"Highlights of Peter Ustinov's global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."
"To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."
Both of these instances make it sound as though the first person in the list—Nelson Mandela or my parents—is defined by the two list items following it. That is to say, Nelson Mandela is an 800-year-old demigod who also happens to collect dildos. And in the second: my parents were Ayn Rand and God (a fascinating if troubling combination). Using the Oxford comma makes it clear that each item is separate.
I read a funny post about this recently, which I recommend taking a couple minutes to skim. I liked this paragraph in particular:
“And” is one of the most used words in the world. It is magical; it connects two separate things, like peanut butter and jelly, or wine and cheese, or Oreos and pickles. The Oxford comma keeps separate the things that should be separate. Otherwise it would be gross and confusing, like this: “Please pick some some apples, ice cream, a tub of lard and chocolate.” A tub of lard and chocolate?! Gross! In some situations, it may be more serious. I saw this in a nonprofit’s bylaws: “The officers of the organization shall include a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.” So wait, is that three people, with the secretary and treasurer a combination position? That’s not unheard of, but why confuse people when a simple comma will add so much clarity?
The Oxford Comma is not just practical, it is also aesthetically pleasing. Read these two sentences, exactly the same except one has an Oxford Comma, and one does not. With the OC: “Please make sure we have nametags, markers, and sticky dots for the retreat.” Without the OC: “Blah blah blah, doo dee dee doo derp derpity derp-dee-doo.” See?
(It's always good to add a little tongue-in-cheek humor to the utter seriousness of grammar.)
Some argue that the comma doesn't actual clear up the meaning of the entire sentence. In the first example, if the Oxford comma is used, Nelson Mandela could still be an 800-year-old demigod, but is excluded from being a dildo collector. However, my choice in such instances (when the item following another on a list does in fact describe the previous item, and is not another list item itself), is to clarify with—you guessed it—more punctuation. So, if Mandela were a demigod, I would write:
Highlights of Peter Ustinov's global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela (an 800-year-old demigod) and a dildo collector.
Highlights of Peter Ustinov's global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela—an 800-year-old demigod—and a dildo collector.
I find this to be a reasonable solution because I like wielding my punctuation, though I do understand that some might find this cumbersome. Both parenthesis and the em-dash can be used to set off a definition or clarifying phrase, so I'll stick with the comma and throw in some other lines and curvy shapes to add clarity when necessary.
By the way, does anyone know what to call the whole colon—double-space—capital letter debacle? I hate it, so I'd like to know what to call it. Use of a colon, by definition, means that only one sentence is being written; so why the hell would you capitalize a word mid-sentence?
What are your grammar pet peeves? (Other than the wanton and almost always incorrect use of the word "literally", which should in fact set your undies ablaze—figuratively.)
Photo by Florian Klauer
PS. Even though I've proofread this post, it seems highly likely to me that the first post I write about grammar will contain the most grammar mistakes and typos of anything I've ever published. So do please kindly alert me if/where I have made silly or grave mistakes. (Note: I've already had to correct two instances where I write "common" instead of "comma". Embarrassing!)
I really appreciate this post. Like you, I am huge fan of the Oxford comma. In fact, I am such a huge fan that I once edited our entire Staff Handbook to reinsert them where my colleague had intentionally left them out. It felt so good!
Ha! I had a friend comment on FB that her organization had recently made an official decision not to use it, and it drives her crazy every day!
And, like you, given the opportunity, I would absolutely edit a staff handbook or any other material to add in Oxford commas and fix any other mistakes. I love doing that.
Yes, but where do you fall in the great s-apostrophe debate? When making a possessive out of a word that ends in "s," do you add the extra "s" or let the apostrophe hang out there on its own? Is it "Moses's tent" or "Moses' tent"?
Well, obviously, I fall in the camp of using the s-apostrophe-s when the noun is singular and the hanging apostrophe (s-apostrophe) when the noun is plural. That's the rule, isn't it?