Column: A grammar horror story


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

On days like this, kids in costumes aren’t the only spooky things in the neighborhood. Did you know commas can save innocent lives? I wanted to avoid controversial subjects like killing in this column, but here we are discussing the only two certainties in life: death and punctuation.

In today’s article, I’m going to settle the Oxford comma debate once and for all. How’s that for a bold statement?

Suppose I wanted to list a few (three, to be precise) of my favorite things. I could say: I like eating, children and small animals. That was intended to read as a list of three things–not a list of one thing followed by examples (although I’ve heard squirrel bacon is excellent!). Most people think the Oxford comma (a.k.a. the serial, series or Harvard comma) is at odds with the AP Stylebook. I’m not sure if this will come as a trick or a treat to you, but the AP Stylebook actually makes clear that it’s perfectly appropriate to use an Oxford comma when doing so helps to avoid confusion or misinterpretation.

My general rule is: use commas sparingly. Pretend they’re shotgun shells and you’re trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse. According to AP, “If a comma doesn’t help make clear what is being said, don’t use it.” I love secretly eating my child’s Skittles, Milky Ways and Butterfingers once he’s asleep. This sentence doesn’t need a comma after “Milky Ways” because it doesn’t provide further clarity in the sentence’s meaning, nor does it lead to misinterpretation.

Hopefully, this nuanced take on the comma controversy provides a diacritical middle ground for the two feuding punctuation parties. I’m not naive enough to assume I will be able to change anyone’s mind on a polarizing topic such as this; I merely wanted to illustrate how two opposing factions can (theoretically) peacefully coexist. I know, I know–you probably think this is a not-so-subtle way of addressing the age-old rivalry between vampires and werewolves. For the record, you are correct. I believe in a world in which vampires and werewolves can – and do – get along.


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