Friday, September 20, 2013

At Least My Shoes Are Oxfords


In what I can only assume was an exaggerated-for-comic-effect piece on Slate, David Haglund bemoans the lack of an Oxford comma, a.k.a. serial comma, in Earth, Wind & Fire and Crosby, Stills and Nash and the like.

With a straighter face, he asserts that "right-thinking usage nerds everywhere" dutifully use that comma. Red, white, and blue, not red, white and blue. Well, I'm as right-thinking a usage nerd as you'll meet, if I do say so myself, and although I'll concede I'm in the minority, I just don't care much about serial commas one way or the other. Neither do my right-thinking-usage-nerd friends Merrill Perlman and John McIntyre.

I've spent my career in newspapers, which generally omit the serial comma, and perhaps that's why I lean slightly in that direction even when I'm off the clock.

Fans of the serial comma will point to comical examples such as "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" to demonstrate how its absence can create ambiguity. But, as many before me have pointed out, you can just as easily come up with an example of the comma's presence creating ambiguity. Think of "my mother, Ayn Rand, and God."

Fans of the serial comma will say "Crosby, Stills and Nash" inappropriately pairs Stills with Nash while leaving Crosby isolated, as if he's in prison or something. I would counter that "Crosby, Stills, and Nash played last night" carries a whiff of Nash alone playing. I'm mentioning Crosby for some reason, I'm mentioning Stills for some reason, and then, in an unrelated matter, I'm informing you that Nash played last night.

Yes, I'm reaching. But so are the Oxfordian serialists and their divine libertarian parents.

Oh, and there is an asterisk. There's always an asterisk. Even the anti-serial-comma Associated Press Stylebook uses serial commas in series that contain at least one embedded conjunction. You should, too. She worked for the departments of State, Labor, and Health and Human Services. AP also reserves the right to use a serial comma when sentences get complex, and that's also a good idea. If each clause in a series could stand alone as its own sentence, use that comma: I've worked at this place for 20 years now, I'm tired of it, and I'm going to quit.

11 comments:

ErinBrenner said...

Did you see Mental Floss's article with sentences that show how the serial comma helps and sentences that show how they hurt?

It underscores that editors need to think rather than automatically apply a rule, even a style rule.

Rose - The Center of My Self said...

I like your approach. There's a time and place when adding (or removing) a serial comma adds clarity. Otherwise, I leave it and reduce page clutter.

King Pigeon said...

Hate to rehash the same old arguments about the serial comma, but don't understand your counter-example: "But, as many before me have pointed out, you can just as easily come up with an example of the comma's presence creating ambiguity. Think of 'my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.'"

Seems clear; it's a list, the list consists of three things: my mother (1), Ayn Rand (2), and God (3)." If I were to imply that Ayn Rand was my mother, I'd write, "My mother (Ayn Rand) and God."

Bill said...

Sure, you *could* use parentheses, but they're not exactly conventional punctuation in such an instance. And we're talking about comma use. You might as well come up with some wacky work-around to explain away the original objection, too. "My parents (who are neither Ayn Rand nor God), in addition to both Ayn Rand and God."

Monica said...

King Pigeon, I think you have bigger-than-serial-commas fish to fry.

The use of "I" as first person, singular pronoun is a very nice thing. A sentence goes from the drab, "Hate to rehash.." to the exciting and specific, "I hate to rehash... but I don't understand...."

It's very nice. I encourage you to try it.

Huizhe said...

The conflict is a silly one, I agree, but the answer to the problem is not to say that the serial comma or lack of it can introduce ambiguity. The answer is to recast the sentence to remove the ambiguity -- unless, of course, ambiguity is the point of the sentence. If the discourse demands that "my parents" come first, then one can write "think of my parents and of Ayn Rand and (of) God". If that's not necessary, one can write "think of Ayn Rand, God, and my parents".

I'm a committed serial comma-ist and a conscientious rewriter of ambiguous sentences. To Hades with unclear attempts at communication and to Lethe with blind adherence to the silly rules in bloated style manuals!

Bill said...

Option C may indeed be better than either Option A or Option B, but the answer to the question "Which is a better option, A or B?" cannot be "C."

Cady Vishniac said...

The debate is so active not because it's particularly interesting but because the terms of the debate are so accessible. Most English speakers can understand what Oxford commas are and how to use them appropriately. Most of those people can even grock the arguments for and against.

It doesn't help that the terms of the debate can be so reductive. Even in the copyediting courses that I took in college, students and professors debate the issue as if it were necessary to decide whether to always use Oxford commas or never use them at all.

Cady Vishniac said...

The debate is so active not because it's particularly interesting but because the terms of the debate are so accessible. Most English speakers can understand what Oxford commas are and how to use them appropriately. Most of those people can even grock the arguments for and against.

It doesn't help that the terms of the debate can be so reductive. Even in the copyediting courses that I took in college, students and professors discussed the issue as if it were necessary to decide whether to always use Oxford commas or never use them at all.

Kate said...

I've worked for places that used it and places that didn't, and when copyediting books I usually followed the author's preference. What I've found is that when not using the serial comma you often have to make exceptions for clarity (and have to decide whether or not to use a serial semicolon as well), but when you use it you almost never have to make exceptions. So when I have my druthers I always use it.

Bill said...

That's the best rationale I've heard yet, Kate.

(I would never omit the serial semicolon in a semicolon series, by the way. For some reason, AP style tends to use a comma there instead, which is just bizarre.)