Thursday, January 23, 2020

lack of an Oxford comma can cost you $10 million

It should be obvious, from my ongoing series on commas, that I'm pro-Oxford when it comes to Oxford commas. I buy into the argument that the comma helps with potential ambiguity.

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

With the comma in place, the above sentence indicates that the speaker/writer is thanking three distinct factions: his/her parents, God, and Satan. Without the comma, though, things become ambiguous:

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

Is the thanker now saying that God and Satan are his/her parents?

In any event, respected authorities and local grammar scolds like yours truly have kicked the Oxford question around, and for the moment at least, the overall sentiment seems to be that the Oxford comma is optional: leaving it out isn't a major sin. But—but—ambiguity! my side of the argument cries.

John Mac just emailed me a link to a very interesting 2017 article about a $10 million court case whose verdict hinged upon the absence of an Oxford comma. Read the article here.

I was thoroughly enjoying the article until I stumbled upon this sentence:

As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.

Dangling modifier! And the writer had been doing so well up to that point. Here's a rewrite:

As a diehard Oxford-comma loyalist, I was delighted by this ruling.

I also corrected the un-hyphenated phrasal adjective.

Anyway, it was fascinating to read about this court case. The comments thread below the article is a bit of a train wreck, with surly scolds trying to argue that the Oxford comma doesn't eliminate all ambiguity. I actually agree that that's true because pretty much every human utterance is open to interpretation if you're clever enough, but it's undeniable that the Oxford comma alleviates ambiguity. A few idiots in that thread are arguing that "a comma marks a pause." Grrrr. By contrast, one astute commenter noted that the author's bio doesn't use the Oxford comma—and neither does the article's first paragraph. D'oh! So much for being a "diehard Oxford-comma loyalist"!

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Well, we all make mistakes. *Ahem*