by Cherie Tucker
One of the first grammar articles to appear in Author was about the serial or Oxford comma, that little mark that comes before the and, or, or nor in a horizontal list of more than two items. Do you like dark, milk, or white chocolate? There is a new swell afoot to get rid of that comma by those who say it is unnecessary. Journalists are taught not to use it, which is why you sometimes have to re-read things in the paper to figure out what they mean. And the Brits don't use it at all. That little comma serves a valuable function for the reader and especially for the writer. Writing, after all, is a form of mind control. Some might say it's the most powerful form. When someone is reading your writing, you have that reader under your spell. Strategically placed punctuation helps the readers process your information without even noticing that a sentence has momentarily been interrupted to give them some additional information.
Sanders, the last person she expected to see, rose from the chair and stared at her.
However, if you give readers false or unclear directions, you not only lose that control, you turn over to the readers the power to decide what you meant to say. Which brings us to the importance of the serial comma. In the old story of the will that left three brothers a huge fortune, it listed them without the serial comma as "Tom, Dick and Harry." That omission caused the judge to award half the amount to Tom and the other half to Dick and Harry. Would that judge have read the sentence below as about four people or two?
In the wreckage were the two murderers, a small child and a priest.
Correctly used punctuation is a writer's best friend. It can allow you to raise your voice or whisper, depending on your choice of a dash or parentheses.
There was Sanders-the man she shot-at the same party. There was Sanders (the man she shot) at the same party.
What if someone should decide we didn't need both of those marks? They're pretty similar, after all, for interrupting a sentence. Why have both? Because, like the serial comma, they help you convey to the reader exactly what you mean. Treasure these little mind-controlling devices, don't discard them, and just pity those who don't understand their power.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.