Monday, February 18, 2008

JFK and the Oxford Comma

I have an erudite writing friend, an editor now, who campaigns for the serial comma, which he lovingly labels the Oxford Comma.

I use it. He congratulates me. I use it because ... well, because it confirms my sense of serial and spacial logic and, of course, because it is a straightforward means of avoiding confusion.

Read this brief paragraph from a news story about a discovery of material stored after the sad events in Dallas in 1963.
"There are also letters to Ruby, records from his trial, a gun holster and clothing that probably belonged to Ruby and Oswald, said District Attorney Craig Watkins, who planned to discuss the find at a news conference Monday."
I normally stumble only slightly over the missing serial comma, but it's lack in this paragraph fundamentally changes the meaning, clouds the scene so thoroughly that I can visualize less careful readers running about shouting that the prosecutor knew that Ruby and Oswald shared ownership of clothing and a pistol holster!

All to save a dittle-dab of ink ...

1 comment:

Carter said...

Erudite? I'll have three of those, please.

You've shown why everybody should use the Oxford comma. If you use it, you'll never be misunderstood; if you don't, you might.

But that's not the only reason. In speech and in writing, prose has rhythm, just as poetry does. Punctuation was invented to help readers get that rhythm right, and it still should do that. True, we don't read aloud much anymore, but that rhythm still vibrates in our heads. Listen to what you write and you'll write better.