The Oxford comma, both friend and foe

HareBrain

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This is a bit of a chestnut, but I've recently seen a couple of amusing examples in a newspaper's letters page of when the Oxford comma (put before "and" toward the end of a list, and which is mostly deemed unnecessary) can be either a help or hindrance to clarity.

Here, its absence is unhelpful:

"I would like to thank my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa."

Here, on the other hand, its presence is:

"I would like to thank my father, the Pope, and Dame Judi Dench."

It's just another illustration of how writers should pay as much attention to punctuation as to their words, and to how the two interact.
 

Cat's Cradle

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"I would like to thank my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa."
Good post, HB! This type of error - really, an editing error - just drives me crazy. And you see it so often, in news reporting and fiction. But that's a very funny, and perfect, example (and what a lineage!).
 

ckatt

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I'm a fan of the Oxcom, as I think it helps more often than hurts.
I'm not really seeing the problem in the second example. Is it that "the Pope" could be misunderstood as an appositive for my father?
Rather than ditch it (which, as I read it, would then make the pope and the dame a unit) reordering the list might help.
"I would like to thank my father, Dame Judi Dench, and the Pope." Still, I think the context would be enough to make it clear.
 

mosaix

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Would you use it in a list of two?

"Get some apples and pears."

Would you use it in a list of three?

"Get some oranges, apples, and pears."

If you changed a list of two into a list of three would you go back and insert the extra comma?
 

ckatt

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@THX1138
Commas are simpler than you might think. I find the biggest problem is that there are a good many people with opinions on commas based entirely on their own whims. But much like spelling, there are standard conventions.
Commas are used in a number of ways, but for writers of fiction, there is only one major application: to separate ideas in order to make them clear.
Often a comma is used to separate phrases and clauses in a sentence. To fully grasp this use, one had to understand phrases and clauses, not commas.
a second common use is to separate items in a list. Some items might be just a single word while others might be two or more, so the comma lets you know where each ends. (Since we always put and before the last one, there's controversy over whether a comma is also necessary. But I guess in Oxford they always do this.)
The third major use is appositives. These always need to be separated with commas so know where the appositive starts and ends.

So whenever you are writing and aren't sure if you need a comma ask yourself if you have one of these three cases and then add your punctuation accordingly.
There are a few exceptions to these conventions but that's usually where the comma is optional, so it's not wrong if you use one.
Regional differences do exist, but you can leave that to a copy editor.

Do not, however, fall for the often repeated "tip" that you should use a comma wherever you pause for a breath. It has no grammatical basis whatsoever and, depending on your lung capacity, may be wrong more often than right.
 

THX1138

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@THX1138
Commas are simpler than you might think. I find the biggest problem is that there are a good many people with opinions on commas based entirely on their own whims. But much like spelling, there are standard conventions.
Commas are used in a number of ways, but for writers of fiction, there is only one major application: to separate ideas in order to make them clear.
Often a comma is used to separate phrases and clauses in a sentence. To fully grasp this use, one had to understand phrases and clauses, not commas.
a second common use is to separate items in a list. Some items might be just a single word while others might be two or more, so the comma lets you know where each ends. (Since we always put and before the last one, there's controversy over whether a comma is also necessary. But I guess in Oxford they always do this.)
The third major use is appositives. These always need to be separated with commas so know where the appositive starts and ends.

So whenever you are writing and aren't sure if you need a comma ask yourself if you have one of these three cases and then add your punctuation accordingly.
There are a few exceptions to these conventions but that's usually where the comma is optional, so it's not wrong if you use one.
Regional differences do exist, but you can leave that to a copy editor.

Do not, however, fall for the often repeated "tip" that you should use a comma wherever you pause for a breath. It has no grammatical basis whatsoever and, depending on your lung capacity, may be wrong more often than right.
Sorry! I deleted the post because it wasn't on par with the topic.
But I am going to copy/paste your response to my grammar doc.
Thanks @ckatt !:)
 

Guttersnipe

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This is a bit of a chestnut, but I've recently seen a couple of amusing examples in a newspaper's letters page of when the Oxford comma (put before "and" toward the end of a list, and which is mostly deemed unnecessary) can be either a help or hindrance to clarity.

Here, its absence is unhelpful:

"I would like to thank my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa."

Here, on the other hand, its presence is:

"I would like to thank my father, the Pope, and Dame Judi Dench."

It's just another illustration of how writers should pay as much attention to punctuation as to their words, and to how the two interact.
I didn't know what this was called. I learned to always use it in lists, at least until high school. For a while, I felt some pride in being the only one to use it "when it's needed."
 

Swank

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This is a bit of a chestnut, but I've recently seen a couple of amusing examples in a newspaper's letters page of when the Oxford comma (put before "and" toward the end of a list, and which is mostly deemed unnecessary) can be either a help or hindrance to clarity.

Here, its absence is unhelpful:

"I would like to thank my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa."

Here, on the other hand, its presence is:

"I would like to thank my father, the Pope, and Dame Judi Dench."

It's just another illustration of how writers should pay as much attention to punctuation as to their words, and to how the two interact.
I'm not sure I understand the distinction. The first sentence would only be misunderstood in a humorous manner if the comma was a semicolon: "...my parents; Darth Vader and Imogene Coca." Otherwise, I don't think a noun or two can form a phrase on their own in the manner you're suggesting.

I could be totally wrong, but you wouldn't say, "I would like you to make me a sandwich, chicken or pastrami." It was need more: "...a sandwich, like chicken or pastrami."
 

tinkerdan

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In issues like this, there is more than just punctuation that is the problem.

I would like to thank my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa."

Here, on the other hand, its presence is:

"I would like to thank my father, the Pope, and Dame Judi Dench."

In cases of the title of parent or father there could follow a further clarification of who those are. This could lead to expectation.
Then there is the issue of clarity which is closely related.

In the first instance.
I would like to thank my parents and Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.
Reduces the expectations beyond parents and removes all commas and I think is much clearer.

Granting that you wouldn't expect someones father to be the Pope--there are a lot of other titles that might fit such as president.
So, once again.
I would like to thank my father and the Pope and Dame Judi Dench.

While the examples are humorous, I think they beg to be mended this way for clarity and anything else is open for misinterpretation.

To preserve the comma you might best go this way.

I would like to thank the Pope, Dame Judi Dench and my father.

Though it might be politically correct to start with my father.

The same for the line with parents.

I would like to thank Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and my parents.

What's of interest is...
If you use something like sister or brother you can get it done with...
I would like to thank my brother John.
I would like to thank my sister Karen.

However it becomes suspect when you use...
I would like to thank my brother John, Karen and Lisa.
This seems acceptable grammatically because it is singular brother, however for clarity you might still want to use.
I would like to thank my brother John and Karen and Lisa.
If the others are sisters you might need...
I would like to thank my brother John and sisters, Karen and Lisa.

Oddly enough grammatically it might seem acceptable to use...
I would like to thank my parent Dave. (this seems to be because you might want to specify which of the two parents and could be necessary).

However not.
I would like to thank my father Dave.
It wants to be.
I would like to thank my father, Dave. (I think because you should only have one father so Dave is not as necessary).
 
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Ursa major

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I'm a fan of the Oxcom, as I think it helps more often than hurts.
Why use it when it "hurts"? And why refuse to use it when using it would "help"?

I thought that Harebrain's point was that the reader would be better served if the choice of the presence or absence of an oxford comma, in any given sentence, was based on what would best help the reader understand what the writer means. If the same meaning is imparted whether or not the oxford comma is there, its presence (or absence) can be left to the writer's own preferences.

I'm not really seeing the problem in the second example. Is it that "the Pope" could be misunderstood as an appositive for my father?
Yes. It isn't as if no pope has ever been a father.
 

Swank

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Since appositives don't go at the end of a sentence like the example, the only way to misunderstand the sentence is to not understand proper punctuation.
 

Wayne Mack

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I thought that Harebrain's point was that the reader would be better served if the choice of the presence or absence of an oxford comma, in any given sentence, was based on what would best help the reader understand what the writer means. If the same meaning is imparted whether or not the oxford comma is there, its presence (or absence) can be left to the writer's own preferences.
I'm in the camp of always using the Oxford comma. When I'm writing, I prefer to rely on some basic rules that I can apply without thought. I have enough things going on in my head that I don't want to spend time deciding whether a comma is absolutely necessary; I don't feel any value is gained by worrying whether it might be okay to omit. Just put the thing in and focus on the jillion other aspects that are really important to the story.
 

Ursa major

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I have enough things going on in my head that I don't want to spend time deciding whether a comma is absolutely necessary
Unless an author decides to publish what they first write down, they should have plenty of opportunities to fix the text so that it represents what they want their readers to understand by reading it (including "fixing" the punctuation).

After all, authors know (or should know) what the text is meant to mean, but readers have only the text to go by. If the text is either confusing -- how's that having diversionary things going on in one's head? -- or misleading, how are they to know whether or not what they work out the text means is what it is meant to mean?

If the cause of either 1) the extra work they have to do or 2) being misled (or both) is simply an author's devotion to either omitting all oxford commas** or always keeping them in, I think they'd have a right to feel hard done by if they discovered that this was the cause. (Even if they don't discover this, they're still not going to be in the least bit grateful.)

Now, of course, if you construct your sentences such that your use of oxford commas will never confuse the reader, that is fine (indeed, admirable)... but doing so sounds, potentially, like extra work/an extra something going on in your head.


** - Plenty of other examples of inappropriate devotion to a "rule" are available... and I doubt any of us are free of some or other such devotion(s).
 

Extollager

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Would you use it in a list of two?

"Get some apples and pears."

Would you use it in a list of three?

"Get some oranges, apples, and pears."

If you changed a list of two into a list of three would you go back and insert the extra comma?
No.
Yes.
Yes.
 

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