From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #778 of 3/17/12:
Miles Irving found this in an article on Dalhousie Castle in the Scotsman on 14 March: “The castle was visited by England’s King Edward I, also known as Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots, and Oliver Cromwell.”
Three contributions to the problem: (a) the combination of a parenthetical or appositive construction with coordination, both of which use commas, but in two different ways; (b) the possible use of asyndetic coordination (lacking an explicit coordinator) in Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots – it helps to know that these are two epithets for Edward I — though perhaps the writer’s intention was that the Hammer of the Scots is to be understood as in apposition to Longshanks, inside the parenthetical introduced by also known as (one parenthetical inside another is a potentially confusing configuration); and (c) the choice between using the serial, or Oxford, comma or avoiding it. The result is that even if you know that Oliver Cromwell is not an epithet of Edward I, but the name of an entirely different person, you are likely to get hung up on that absurd interpretation.
Some comments on this particular example, then an inventory of LLog and AZBlog postings on the Oxford / serial comma.
On this use of the comma, here’s the Wikipedia summary of usage advice:
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, and sometimes referred to as the series comma) is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, a list of three countries can be punctuated as either “Portugal, Spain, and France” (with the serial comma) or as “Portugal, Spain and France” (without the serial comma).
Opinions vary among writers and editors on the usage or avoidance of the serial comma. In American English, the serial comma is standard usage in non-journalistic writing that follows the Chicago Manual of Style [similarly in the Oxford Style Manual (OUP) and the Harvard University Press house style]. Journalists, however, usually follow the AP Stylebook, which advises against it [as do the the Times style manual, the New York Times stylebook, the Economist style manual, the Guardian Style Guide, the University of Oxford Writing and Style Guide, and the Cambridge Guide to English Usage]. It is used less often in British English, where it is standard usage to leave it out, with some notable exceptions such as Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
The article goes on to treat the conflict between clarity — in general (but not always), using the serial comma avoids potential ambiguities — and brevity or economy — avoiding the serial comma saves a punctuation mark that is in general (but not always) unnecessary. It also counterposes two well-known examples:
(1) To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. [coordination without the serial comma]
(2) To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God. [coordination with the serial comma]
In both, we see an interaction between the way apposition is punctuated (with flanking commas) and the way coordination is punctuated (with or without the serial comma). (1) invites an absurd interpretation in which Ayn Rand and God is in apposition to my parents, while (2) invites an absurd interpretation in which Ayn Rand is in apposition to my mother. (On balance, problematic examples like (1) outnumber problematic examples like (2), but there’s an infelicity in either case.)
To return to Edward I and Oliver Cromwell, consider
(3) … visited by England’s King Edward I, also known as Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots, and Oliver Cromwell
Let’s undo the asyndetic coordination or parenthetical-within-parenthetical, whichever it is, which adds an unnecessary complication to the example:
(4) … visited by England’s King Edward I, also known as Longshanks(,) and the Hammer of the Scots, and Oliver Cromwell
It might be that the writer systematically avoided the serial comma, in which case they thought that Oliver Cromwell could not be interpreted as a third conjunct; for that interpretation, a non-serialist would have written:
(5) … visited by England’s King Edward I, also known as Longshanks(,) and the Hammer of the Scots and Oliver Cromwell
But, as I’ve pointed out several times (see the inventory below), relying on the reader’s appreciation of which usage option you favor to interpret what you write is a hopeless cause. To fix things for all readers, serialists as well as non-serialists, you have to avoid the double use of commas (for both parentheticals and coordination) — easily done by using some “stronger” mark of parentheticals, dashes or parentheses:
(6a) … visited by England’s King Edward I — also known as Longshanks(,) and the Hammer of the Scots — and Oliver Cromwell
(6b) … visited by England’s King Edward I (also known as Longshanks(,) and the Hammer of the Scots) and Oliver Cromwell
On to the inventory, with passages from the postings. The postings are from Language Log unless specifically marked as from this blog.
AZ, 7/10/04: It’s all grammar (link)
In the case of the serial comma, vs. its absence, or the quote-punc order (periods and commas outside right quotation marks unless they were in the material being quoted), vs. the punc-quote order, there are actual issues of informational accuracy, as Geoff Pullum laid out in his article “Punctuation and Human Freedom”, in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. (You will note that, following the practice that Bernard Bloch established for the Linguistic Society of America’s journal Language, I’m a quote-punc kind of guy. Also that I’m a serial comma user.)
AZ, 5/22/05: Five more thoughts on the That Rule (link)
As a final little twist, I should note that at least once the choice of that over which has been justified to me by someone who pointed out that that has one letter less than which. Brevity rules. It’s like not using the serial comma; after all, that final comma isn’t necessary because the and signals the end of the list. That is, the final comma is redundant, and therefore not necessary, so we can save a little bit of space.
Whoops. DON’T use the final comma because it’s redundant (and therefore unnecessary). USE that because it’s redundant (and therefore clearer). What’s a poor boy to do?
ML, 3/16/06: “My parents, Ayn Rand and God” (link): discussion of this famous example
AZ, 3/22/06: Today’s Linguistics 101 essay assignment (link)
… for a little bit of extra credit, explain why that last sentence [“Actually, it is those black men who value conception over fatherhood, Ebonics over proper English language and pocket money over building wealth who are to blame for their own downfall.”] might make you long for the serial comma.
AZ, 3/4/07: Foolish hobgoblins (link)
Not long ago I touched on another burning issue in punctuation, whether or not to use the serial comma in coordination: Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne or Patty, Maxine and LaVerne. Again, each variant has something (small) going for it — the serial variant is clearer in some contexts, the non-serial variant saves a character — but everybody is used to seeing both variants, and probably only people who have been made sensitive to the issue notice the variation, so it seems pointless to invest a lot of energy in enforcing one variant over the other. Yet editors and publishers insist on Strict Consistency by Context: you write for one publication, you must always use the serial comma; you write for another, you must never use it.
AZ, 12/10/06: Save that comma! (link)
[on: “... the author of 14 books on grammar and usage and the author of four novels, the dictionary, The New Language of Politics and an anthology of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears.”] Serial vs. anti-serial is one of those absurd religious disputes that concern the minutest points of practice but consume astonishing amounts of the energy and time of practitioners. (Lynne Truss, sensibly, refuses to take sides.) I’m a serial guy myself, but I’m exposed to material punctuated according to both schemes, with the result that I doubt that I’d note inconsistent use of commas within a text, unless I was specifically examining its punctuation style. I suspect that most people (other than copy editors and such) are like me; at any given point in our reading, we have to be prepared to cope with either scheme. Which means, paradoxically, that all the effort invested in enforcing one scheme or the other consistently is wasted on ordinary readers; we’re not going to notice inconsistency.
… As Geoff Pullum pointed out in a chat around the water cooler here at Language Log Plaza, part of the problem with [the serial version, “... the author of four novels, the dictionary, The New Language of Politics, and an anthology of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears”] is that it uses commas in two different functions. Geoff Nunberg then observed that you can use semicolons to fix this
AZ, 9/24/08: Tangled up in newsroom practice (link):
[The NYT is] just following a style sheet [on the use of titles in referring to people], not showing respect. But how are its readers supposed to know this? The style sheet might warm the hearts of the NYT staff, but what the readers see is inexplicable variation in the use of titles.
This is what I think of as the Downside of Consistency — all the difficulties that come from assuming that the people who read you will appreciate your (noble, principled) consistency. Mostly, they won’t.
If you are methodical about adhering to the serial comma (or rejecting it absolutely), most of your readers aren’t going to notice; they’ll see both variants in what they read. If you are committed to using decimate to mean only ‘decrease in number or amount by one-tenth’, very few of your readers will notice; they’ll see substantial numbers of the ‘decrease hugely in number or amount’ interpretations in what they read, and will probably read you that way (unless you supply your intended reading explicitly).
The NYT‘s readers can’t be expected to appreciate the niceties of the paper’s style sheet. They read stuff like ordinary people, not like NYT writers. The writers should recognize this.
GP, 4/9/09: When commas are crucial to comprehension (link)
When I write a clause that begins with a clause-containing adjunct, I generally put a comma after the adjunct. The comma in that first sentence illustrates my practice. Some writers studiously avoid such a comma (sometimes my style is known as “heavy” punctuation and the other style as “light”). I also like the so-called “Oxford comma”: I write Oregon and Washington, but I don’t write California, Oregon and Washington. I use an extra comma and write California, Oregon, and Washington.
I couldn’t wish for a better illustration of why I like my own policies than the following sentence, which I saw in The Economist last week (April 4, p. 11). It goes the other way on both of my policies, and it’s disastrously misunderstandable in my opinion:
Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
AZBlog, 10/31/09: The nanosecond of uncertainty (link): temporary ambiguity in parsing induced by avoiding the serial comma (in an example from Dan Mahaffey)
AZBlog, 1/1/10: The Oxford comma in lyrics (link)
[about Vampire Weekend’s song “Oxford Comma”] When the album came out, Michael Hogan did a piece in Vanity Fair about the Oxford comma — consulting with lexicographer Grant Barrett, Vanity Fair‘s copy chief Peter Devine, and Vanity Fair writer David Rose (all of whom expressed some concern for the Oxford comma), and then with Ezra Koenig
ML, 10/24/10: Merle Haggard’s ex-wives (link)
[on apposition and coordination] Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden are long-time collectors of arguments for the final serial comma. They’re responsible for publicizing the most famous (if probably apocryphal) example, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, as well as the equally remarkable (and apparently real) “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.
Now Patrick Nielsen Hayden (“The return of the final serial comma’s vital necessity“, Making Light 10/21/2010) has posted another, describing the recent documentary about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall”.
[plus a video of Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma”]
AZBlog, 11/21/10: A comma, doctor! (link): commas in “high” vs. “low” attachment of phrases
GP, 4/23/11: Supplementary apposition train wreck (link): apposition and coordination
AZBlog, 7/30/11: Style sheet tyranny (link)
Every so often I take a shot at the New York Times for adhering to some point of mechanical style, no matter what — for instance, its periodophilia in initialistic abbreviations (most recently, here), where it’s happy to disregard the ordinary practices of people and institutions who use the periodless versions of these abbreviations (even in public documents) in favor of its absurd instance on periods in things like the N.A.A.C.P., the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and L.G.B.T.
And then there’s the serial comma, where the paper is dead set against it (Omit Needless Punctuation; yes, I know, this runs counter to its periodophilia, but rules are rules), even where it might be useful.
[then on to an example where avoidance of the serial comma introduces a temporary ambiguity in parsing]
SK, 9/18/11: Visual aid for the final serial comma (link): cartoon with coordinate series and apposition: “the strippers, jfk(,) and stalin”