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Oxford Comma

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This case is in the news.

This is about interpreting a state law, but gives support to the pro-Oxford Comma crowd.

Another complex list gone bad. To paraphrase Boy George: 'Comma comma comma comma comma-chameleon'

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I always use the series or Oxford comma, and I withstand instruction not to use it -- although I didn't know it was called an Oxford comma until I read the case.

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See U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (2008), Chapter 8, "Punctuation," paragraph 8.42:

Quote

The comma is used--After each member within a series of three or more words, phrases, letters, or figures used with and, or, or nor.

  • red, white, and blue
  • horses, mules, and cattle; but horses and mules and cattle
  • by the bolt, by the yard, or in remnants
  • a, b, and c
  • neither snow, rain, nor heat
  • 2 days, 3 hours, and 4 minutes (series); but 70 years 11 months 6 days (age)

See Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, II. Elementary Rules of Usage, 2:

Quote

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write,

  • red, white, and blue
  • gold, silver , or copper,
  • He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

See The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., Ch. 6, "Punctuation," 6.18:

Quote

Serial commas. Items in a series are normally separated by commas.... When a conjuction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma--known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma--should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities..., since it prevents ambiguity.

 

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So who is busy telling us not to put a comma before an and.   Red, White and Blue.  I always put a comma after white but got told somewhere in my schooling to quit doing it.  Is there some other theory out there on this?

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I was told the same thing in my school. Remember what Paul Simon said about all the crap he learned in school?

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8 hours ago, Boof said:

So who is busy telling us not to put a comma before an and.   Red, White and Blue.  I always put a comma after white but got told somewhere in my schooling to quit doing it.  Is there some other theory out there on this?

The Associated Press Stylebook omits the Oxford comma.  Neither is "right" nor "wrong," it is a matter of style. If your meaning is ambiguous, the ambiguity can be clarified by either using the Oxford comma or rearranging the sentence to clarify the meaning.

Opposition to the use of the Oxford comma is often partly based on the opinion that too many commas impede the flow of the sentence.  For example, journalist, humorist, and playwright James Thurber preferred writing "the red white and blue" to "the red, white, and blue." In a letter to Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, he stated, "All those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be."

In technical and legal writing, where clarity should trump style, I would use the Oxford comma.  In other writing, if someone thinks the sentence reads better without it, go for it.

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As recently as 2008, Villanova Law School was teaching its students to omit the Oxford comma. I do not recall whether that came from our style guide or was the school's preference. In retrospect, it seems like a strange thing to teach law students, who should be more interested in clarity than character counts. 

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Any thoughts on the use of semicolons? Should you just use a period, instead? (Sorry for that comma after period, but I refuse to be guilty of anti-comma bias.)

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Well, as we all know, the semicolon's most important use is in the "winky face" emoticon.  ; )

But, when it comes to lists, if any of the items in the series contain a comma, separate the items with a semicolon. I invited Vern; Bob, who is Vern's friend; and Don to the St. Patrick's Day party.

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Lionel:

What if I've written a sentence that contains two independent clauses. The clauses should be separated by a semicolon. As a general matter of style, which would you prefer--using the semicolon or writing two sentences?

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I usually try to solve that issue with a parenthesis:

Quote

I invited Vern, Bob (who is Vern's friend), and Don to the St. Patrick's Day party.

Georgetown Law School provides this on their web site- I think it is pretty good:

https://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/academic-programs/legal-writing-scholarship/writing-center/upload/punctuationtips.pdf

(Full disclosure, I'm and inveterate ellipsis abuser . . .)

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PepeTheFrog is calling for a complete and total shutdown of the omission of the Oxford comma until we can figure out what the heck is going on. We have no choice, folks. No choice!

Any contracting professional who does not use the Oxford comma must be deported immediately.

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Me thinks that you PUNKtuators are going a wee bit overboard. Let's get away from Oxford and put things into a greener perspective: Erin go Bragh!

Here’s to a long life and a merry one, a quick death and an easy one. A pretty girl and an honest one. A cold beer-and another one.

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46 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

Lionel:

What if I've written a sentence that contains two independent clauses. The clauses should be separated by a semicolon. As a general matter of style, which would you prefer--using the semicolon or writing two sentences?

I'll play along.

Use a semicolon if you want to create a link between the two statements, usually when the statements are related to or contrast with one another.  For example, I run five miles every morning; it invigorates me and prepares me for my work.  Each of those statements could be its own sentence; however, by using a semicolon I've gramatically reinforced the relationship between the act of running and the invigorating benefits.

 

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Semi-colons are cool: they can be used to connote literacy where none, in fact, exists.

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Lionel:

Thanks.

Does the use of a semicolon make the relationship between running and its benefits clearer than:

I run five miles every morning. It invigorates me and prepares me for work.

The reason I'm asking you is that (1) anyone who reads the New Yorker is someone whose opinion matters to me, and (2) I was influenced to write the latter more often than your version by a writer who claimed that the semicolon did nothing more than make for a longer sentence when two shorter sentences would make for an easier read. I once used a lot of semicolons, but now I refuse to let myself do so. I wonder if I'm less effective as a writer because of that decision.

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30 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

Does the use of a semicolon make the relationship between running and its benefits clearer than:

I run five miles every morning. It invigorates me and prepares me for work.

Well, that's the grammatical intent.  I doubt most readers, including myself, would make a conscious distinction between the two.  Personally, in a longer piece of writing, I prefer to mix longer and shorter sentences because I think it creates a better "flow" to my writing.  But that does not make another approach wrong.

30 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

anyone who reads the New Yorker is someone whose opinion matters to me

I assume you're joking.  Either way, although I have read the New Yorker, I am not a regular reader.

30 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

I once used a lot of semicolons, but now I refuse to let myself do so. I wonder if I'm less effective as a writer because of that decision.

I think everyone here can attest to the fact that you are an effective writer. 

 

Rules of grammar are meant to assist a writer clearly convey thoughts; they are not immutable laws of science.  Once you’ve reached a certain point of literacy in your writing, blindly adhering to a rule of grammar simply for the sake of following a rule seems silly.  I ignore rules of grammar all the time, both knowingly and unknowingly.

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Lionel:

I wasn't joking about people who read The New Yorker. A contracting practitioner who reads good stuff becomes a better reader and writer. The New Yorker is the top of the line in nonfiction writing. But I confess that I rarely read its fiction.

Thanks for the compliment about my being an effective writer. However, when I read something I wrote even just a few days earlier it often makes me cringe and sigh. I worry a lot that I'm not clear. People who read Wifcon would be shocked to learn how many times I edit my posts.

I think your last paragraph is the right way to see these matters.

Vern

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