The mighty comma

3 Sep
Everyone has heard stories about the importance of punctuation and how those seemingly insignificant marks can completely change the meaning of a sentence.  The classic example:
Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.
The hardest punctuation mark for most people is the lowly comma.  Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I flatter myself that most of the time I know what I’m doing with them.  (The trouble with writing this is that I now tremble in fear that there are punctuation errors in this post.)
Personally, I am a firm believer in the "Oxford comma".  What is an Oxford comma, you ask?  Here’s an explanation from "":

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It is so called because it was traditionally used by printer’s readers and editors at Oxford University Press. Sometimes it can be necessary for clarity when the items in the list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

Some people do not realize that the Oxford comma is acceptable, possibly because they were brought up with the supposed rule (which Fowler would call a ‘superstition’) about putting punctuation marks before and.

This comma is optional, so some writers choose to leave it out unless absolutely necessary, but I think using it consistently is the best way to avoid confusion.  While editing a document for Michael, I came across the following:

"The view from the Settlement of Nahanni Butte is restricted to a portion of the South Nahanni River, the small Butte and the Nahanni Butte (Tthenaago)."

If you’re familiar with the area around Nahanni Butte and if you pay the least amount of attention to commas, this sentence confusing.  I added a comma after "the small Butte" and wrote this comment to Michael about it:

"Here’s an example of a sentence where comma use is delicate.  Without the second comma, you imply that the small butte and the Nahanni Butte are part of the South Nahanni river.  This means that there is only a single view from the community.  I added in the comma, which now means the community has a view of three points of interest.  Oh, the mighty comma!"

 Okay, okay, I realize I’m being pedantic again, but I’m slightly intoxicated by the feeling of using my brain after spending so much time worrying solely about baby sleep schedules.  I’m feeling much better now, thank you.

3 Responses to “The mighty comma”

  1. Meandering September 3, 2006 at 11:26 pm #

    "…this sentence confusing."  Yes, it certainly is. :p

  2. Nemmy September 7, 2006 at 4:14 am #

    My my, Fawn, you\’d think we had the same mothers. I, too, am a proponent of the Oxford comma. And now I know what to call it when people remove it on me. Take THAT!

  3. Fawn September 9, 2006 at 1:19 pm #

    It\’s also called a "serial comma".

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