Today we’re going to talk about a subject that isn’t as fun as telling people they could actually care less; however, it’s an important topic for clarity purposes. It’s also a bit of a point of contention among grammar nerds, because some of us believe in this rule; while others don’t. And depending on which writing style you prefer, both sides are technically correct.
But since I’m a fairy, and magical creatures tend to know better, I’m going to bat for what really makes sense: The Oxford comma.
So what is the Oxford Comma?
This nifty little punctuation mark is also known as the Harvard comma or a serial comma. Take your pick. It’s called a serial comma because it’s used when you are listing a series of items (and because it’s used by Harvard University Press, and Oxford University Press). Let’s look at a couple of examples:
“Paris Hilton was in attendance with her parents, Martha Stewart and Jay Leno.” Unless you love watching trash TV (and I have to admit I’ve watched plenty of episodes of The Real Housewives franchise), or know the names of every member of the Hilton family, you might conclude: “Oh my God! I didn’t know those were Paris Hilton’s parents!” However, if that sentence said: “Paris Hilton was in attendance with her parents, Martha Stewart, and Jay Leno,” you wouldn’t assume that her parents are the two people mentioned after that first comma.
The Argument Against It
The series in the above example is: the parents, Martha Stewart, and Jay Leno. The argument against the usage of the Oxford comma is that if you just change around the syntax (the order of words in a sentence), or even split it into two sentences, the meaning is clear: “Paris Hilton was in attendance with her parents; also with Martha Stewart and Jay Leno.” This is very true, and I have to give credit where credit is due. That’s one way of doing it.
If what you’re writing is not that long or time consuming, the above alternative would work. However, once upon a time, it was against the rules to finish a sentence with a preposition. Constantly trying to move around the words meant ending up with sentences that sounded too formal, nonsensical, or anachronistic. Or in the best case scenario, you wasted a lot of time.
You be the judge
“The guest list included J.K. Rowling, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson, Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah, Paul McCartney and Tina Turner.” Are Paul McCartney and Tina Turner a couple? Or would inserting a comma after “Paul McCartney” make it clear that he was one guest, and Tina was another guest (and not each other’s date)?
You can choose to rephrase sentences all day until they’re clear, or you can insert a simple comma.
I prefer writing about topics where there’s a clear rule of what’s correct and what isn’t. The AP style doesn’t use it, so this is all their fault. If your professor or employer follows AP, quit and find another job. Or risk it and lose cases in court over it. Be my guest. It’s your pocket.
That’s it for now, my sweet little gumdrops. May you have a fabulous rest of the day, and stay tuned for more fun entries.
The Fairy Godwriter