As we have already seen in Comma Usage in Creative Writing, commas are especially useful because if used wisely they can greatly improve the clarity of what we write.
However, sometimes such rules are applied inconsistently, are badly understood, or are even dropped completely.
A typical example comes from lists. This seems a pretty straightforward situation. One which should pose no problems at ll. In fact, we should put in a comma to differentiate each element of the list. And we should do this also with the last item.
Unfortunately, some writers don’t use this last comma, which is called Oxford comma. The reasoning behind this choice is that such a comma is unnecessary. And they are right. Well, most of the time…
Lists and the Oxford comma
Let’s take a look at the two sentences below:
1) In the drawer, I found old pencils, a sharpener, several rolls of tape, and a beheaded doll.
2) At lunch, Jerry ate salad, fried eggs, and cheese.
In the example 1) above, the Oxford Comma can be dropped quite safely. In fact, the meaning of the sentence is clear in either version.
Conversely, in example 2) the use of the Oxford comma can be important. In fact, the use of that last additional comma tells us Jerry ate three different dishes. Instead, without the comma, fried eggs and cheese could be interpreted as constituents of the same dish.
Here the dropping of the Oxford comma seems irrelevant. After all, what Jerry ate isn’t such a big deal.
However, if the detail is important we can end up messing up majestically the narrative flow of our story. That’s to say forcing our readers out of the story, even if only momentarily.
Just think of a thriller. You’re writing a scene where a bomb goes off and there’s chaos, wounded people lying about, sirens blaring, and on and on. A scene you are working hard to make as effective as a shot of pure adrenaline.
But then you inadvertently write a line like this:
“In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of his parents, Father John and Sister Ann.”
Now, if you wanted to say that Father John and Sister Ann are Carl’s parents, fine. Instead, if you wanted to refer to Carl’s parents plus Father John and Sister Ann, all the adrenaline you’ve strove to pack into the scene would go down the drain with a derisive laugh on part of your readers.
Using the Oxford comma we can avoid such a potential trouble completely.
In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of his parents, Father John, and Sister Ann.
Of course, in writing one can always reformulate a sentence.
A) In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of Father John, Sister Ann and his parents.
B) In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of Sister Ann, Father John and his parents.
C) In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of his parents and Father John and Sister Ann.
D) In the chaos after the explosion, Carl lost sight of his parents, Father John, Sister Ann.
A) is problematic because we use and to link a feminine noun with a masculine pronoun. As a result we are bound to make our readers to stop reading and ask themselves questions they shouldn’t be bothered with.
B) is perfectly grammatical. But the meaning is different. Here the parent’s are Father John’s, not Carl’s.
C) too is perfectly grammatical. But this is an emphatic construction. As a result, we should use it when we really want to add emphasis to what we are saying. In fact, if we use it every time we make a list we end up robbing this literary device of all its strength, and maybe also boring our readers.
D) is an acceptable way to form the sentence. It can be used for rhythmic reasons. Or to startle the reader with a sudden, unanticipated end of the list. And it might work in the scene we are considering here.
Oxford comma forever?
All this is not to say we should use the Oxford comma indiscriminately. After all, as we have seen there are occasions the difference between using it and not using it is negligible or simply non existent.
As a result, we can choose to use it always–and be pretty sure we’re never going to give our sentences unexpected turns–or we can decide to pause and think carefully about what we want to say and what the sentence we’ve written actually says.
This latter is a choice that requires more work and commitment, but it’s a choice that in the long run is bound to pay off. Because after a while we’ll gain a deeper understanding of what type of sentences are more susceptible to meaning-shifts than others. So, in the end we’ll be able to write confidently in a more flexible and mature style.