Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Oxford and vocative commas: redux

An Oxford comma is used in lists of three or more items. It comes right before the "and" that signals the final item of the list. This comma isn't considered de rigueur: most grammar experts and references will say that omitting the comma doesn't normally make much difference. While this is largely true, there are indeed cases where the presence of an Oxford comma will clarify matters that its absence would leave ambiguous. To steal (and alter) an example from The Moosebody:

I'd like to thank my parents, God and Satan.

This sounds as if you're saying that God and Satan are your parents. The initial comma serves the same function as would a colon in that instance:

I'd like to thank my parents: God and Satan.

But if you are, in truth, thanking three factions,* not two, then the Oxford comma will make this abundantly clear:

I'd like to thank my parents, God, and Satan.

That comma before "and" and after "God"? That's the Oxford comma. Here's The Moosebody's slightly raunchy version of this example:

Note, too, the following ambiguity:

(1) Yeah, I'll take Scott, Dave and Sue.
(2) Yeah, I'll take Scott, Dave, and Sue.

Above, in case (1), a man is talking to Dave and Sue. He's telling them that he'll take Scott. With no Oxford comma to make clear that "I" will take three people (perhaps he's picking folks to be on his kickball team)—as per case (2)—the remaining comma turns into a vocative comma, i.e., the comma you use when addressing people.

So let's talk vocative commas. The "voca" in vocative comes from the Latin vocare, to call. We use this comma when addressing people.

NOE: Sir you're next.
YUH: Sir, you're next.

NOE: Hello Dave.
YUH: Hello, Dave.

NOE: Come inside children! (gross...or maybe not, depending on sexual proclivity)
YUH: Come inside, children!

NOE: I don't know John. (unless you really do mean that John is unknown to you)
YUH: I don't know, John. (you're telling John you don't know)

NOE: Thanks Matilda.
YUH: Thanks, Matilda.

NOE: What do we do now genius?
YUH: What do we do now, genius?

NOE: Frank I meant what I said.
YUH: Frank, I meant what I said.

And of course, the classic:

NOE: Eat Grandpa! (we likes 'em leathery)
YUH: Eat, Grandpa.

I hope this little post helps to clear up some issues I keep on seeing regarding the misuse of these two types of comma. Happy thinking, writing, and sharing, people.

*You can see why I said "factions" and not "people" or "parties," yes? Because "parents" can be taken to mean two people or two parties, but we can consider the pair a single faction, i.e., a group within the context of a larger collective (in this case, the larger collective is the totality of the list). Is a pair the same as a group? I can hear some nitpickers asking that sort of question just to trip me up. Well, in French, when the teacher says, "Pair up," she says, "Mettez-vous en groupes de deux." Place yourselves in groups of two. Those're pairs. So, yuh.


Charles said...

I use the Oxford comma regularly, simply to avoid confusion. True, there are times when it doesn't matter, but if you just use it all the time you never have to worry about confusing people. I mean, confusing them with comma usage, at least. There are plenty of other ways of confusing people that I enjoy greatly. (Relative clauses, for example.)

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I agree that it's better to be safe than sorry, so I reflexively use the Oxford comma.