Oxford Comma Controversies: Shooting Clay Pigeons and Men

The Oxford comma (or lack of it) can make a real mess of our intended meaning. A newsletter, which I used to receive, always previewed its feature articles in the email header. In one, it was considerate enough to put women on the alert. Or was that just one of its regular comma controversies? 

Pumpkin soup is definitely something women need to watch out for! Remember, you’ve been warned….

Former MPs in High Court allowances bid, how Centrelink assesses eBay sales, why more women suffer from Alzheimer’s and Roasted Pumpkin Soup

I was wondering what could possibly make women so susceptible to one of my winter favourites. Sad, really – I’d always thought of pumpkin soup as such a comforting food.

Then the situation escalated. The newsletter update featured this header:

Why more women suffer from Alzheimer’s, former MPs in High Court allowances bid, how Centrelink assesses eBay sales and Roasted Pumpkin Soup

Oh no! Pumpkin soup is also under investigation by Centrelink! There should be a label warning:

‘This soup is liable to cause women to suffer AND could also affect your Centrelink benefit’.

Whatever next?

Of course, most of us know what was really going on.

The Oxford Comma

The problem was the missing Oxford comma – the one that sometimes goes before the word ‘and’.

Most people separate items in a list by using commas. The dilemma arises when the final item has ‘and’ before it. Do we use that Oxford comma or not?

The battle rages still. The simple solution is to look at how the sentence reads – with the comma, and without it.

Think about this example:

The German flag is black, red and gold

In this sentence, there is no real need for the extra comma – for two reasons. First, it is a list of similar items – in this case, simple adjectives (colours). Second, the word ‘and’ does the job of separating the second and third adjectives, without any ambiguity. The meaning is perfectly clear.

What about this sentence, in a first draft of my friend’s profile?

Her interests are reading, baking cakes and men.

Some of you might think that baking men would improve them – make them more tender, maybe – but ouch! Better to put a comma in:

Her interests are reading, baking cakes, and men.

In this case, there was a problem because the list items were not similar. The word ‘baking’ has a noun object (‘cakes’) and so leaving out the second comma results in a piece of nonsense, making it look as though ‘baking’ has two noun objects (‘cakes’ and ‘men’).

Sometimes writers choose to use semi-colons as separators, especially when the listed items are wordy, or contain verbs. Back to my friend’s profile (final draft):

Her interests are: reading; going to the cinema; baking cakes; shooting clay pigeons; and men.

Failing to use that final semi-colon would result in another piece of nonsense. Wouldn’t it?

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