comma before 'and' [conjunction]: discuss A, and B. An Oxford comma?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by nzfauna, Apr 5, 2008.

  1. nzfauna

    nzfauna Senior Member

    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand, English
    I have recently been educated by Dimcl that,

    [Does this mean that an Oxford comma is exactly the same as a serial comma? - askoxford.com give two different definitions for the two terms.]

    My question now is, what do you call the type of comma in the sentence examples below?

    I want to discuss health and safety. [one concept]
    I want to discuss health, and safety. [two concepts]

    We should invite Wiremu and Mary. [W&M seen as a unit]
    We should invite Wiremu, and Mary. [W&M seen as two separate units]
     
  2. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I've been waiting for someone to jump in here and help us out, Nzfauna, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen so I'm going to add two more cents worth.:)

    What I don't really understand in your sample sentences are the one concept/two concepts idea. Why is "Wiremu and Mary" one concept/one unit and "Wiremu," and "Mary" two concepts/two units? If I were to say "We should invite Wiremu. Oh, and Mary", that would be two separate ideas/units. Why are Wiremu and Mary one unit?

    Edit: In answer to your question about what to call the comma in your sentences - I hate to say it but the comma shouldn't be there at all...
     
  3. coiffe

    coiffe Senior Member

    Oman
    English (USA)
    In my view, the comma is optional before the last item in the longer list. But if you want to signal a pause between a list of two items or concepts (not sentences), I would use a long dash. I agree with Dimcl and do not believe the comma is correct:

    We should invite Wiremu -- and Mary.

    You can only use the comma before the final conjunction if the items are sentences:

    Bill sells furniture, and John writes novels.
     
  4. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    I'm afraid, Dear NZF, that I too would call those unnecessary commas.
     
  5. cycloneviv

    cycloneviv Senior Member

    Perth, Western Australia
    English - Australia

    It does list each separately but the Oxford comma is defined as being another name for a serial comma, so: yes, askoxford.com is saying that they are identical.
     
  6. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Suppose that Wiremu and Mary are very happily married. It would be normal to say:

    We should invite Wiremu and Mary.

    Now suppose that Wiremu and Mary have been having a tempestuous hate affair for ten years and that recently Wiremu tried to murder Mary. We might pause in speech after Wiremu, and, in writing, I'd expect punctuation to be able to communicate this fact. Why not?

    We should invite Wiremu, and Mary.

    To deny the possibility of doing this correctly seems to me to restrict the power of punctuation to link the written and the spoken word.
     
  7. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Yes, I see what you mean, TT ~ I just don't think we'd do it that way (well, I don't think I would, anyway). I'd be more likely to say or write We should invite Wiremu and Mary ~ but separately.
     
  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    But now you've changed the words used. One could, and very well might, write:

    We should invite Wiremu...and Mary.

    But I see We should invite Wiremu, and Mary as a possible intermediate level, indicating a smaller pause, perhaps, between the version with the dots and

    We should invite Wiremu and Mary.

    Maybe I see punctuation as being a more flexible matter than some other people. Is there some rule which you think is being broken by NZF's suggestion?
     
  9. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Only the rule of usage:) (Can we assume we're only talking about the written version here?) For such a short sentence I find that comma extraordinarily jarring and ~ not to exaggerate (for once) ~ a bit bizarre: I just feel it's adding a comma-pause where a comma-pause shouldn't be.
    If I was going to write this, I'd go for:
    We should invite Wiremu ... and Mary
    OR
    We should invite Wiremu ~ and Mary
    What do you think of those alternatives? I'm not saying that a comma there isn't possible ~ just that it's not probable in 'everyday' English.
     
  10. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I'm intrigued by your use of the tilde, Ewie. I didn't know it could be used in conventional punctuation in English, though I know it's used in logic and mathematics. I certainly wouldn't use it here.

    The fact that you find the comma bizarre isn't in itself a disqualification, I feel, because it would be bizarre to pause there - the bizarre circumstances have called for the bizarre punctuation, and if you didn't notice it, I, as an author, would feel that I'd not pulled off the effect I was striving for.

    How about the other example - health, and safety? The problem here, I feel, is that we are dealing with two nouns which we've met together so often that the separation feels unnatural. Similarly I'd find it hard to accept bread, and butter or Laurel, and Hardy. However, when the ideas are very distinct, is NZF's idea so strange? I drove to Leeds to see my auntie, and an opera (?)
     
  11. Salegrosso Senior Member

    Napoli (Italy)
    Verona (Italy)
    I'd like to recall you that the definition in post no.1 says three or more items,
    therefore neither Wiremu&Mary nor auntie&opera examples are included in that definition.

    The comma of post no.1 has a special value, which I recognise immediately by comparison, because in Italian such a comma is simply wrong!
    I found that comma in lists in English very often, and I learned that it's an English usage.
    For this reason, I think that 'Oxford comma' is an excellent name for that.
     
  12. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    No real need for a reminder, Salegrosso, because the question in the OP which I was addressing really starts under the definition - my question now is...

    And what follows are examples with two items, so I don't think we'd left the point, or that we need restrict our discussion to Oxford or serial commas, which are used by some people when dealing with more than two items.
     
  13. Salegrosso Senior Member

    Napoli (Italy)
    Verona (Italy)
    Ok, in that case I beg pardon for not catching the point of the discussion.
    Thank you for the correction, TT. :)
     
  14. coiffe

    coiffe Senior Member

    Oman
    English (USA)
    When I look at this with my morning eyes, it seems to me that yes, you could use the comma like this, Thomas. I don't know of any grammatical rule that is being broken. (Some have tried to make that rule, but I don't buy it.) My preference, however, would be the long dash, to make that pause.

    I hadn't seen tildes used and that was interesting. In creative writing I could accept that; but I wouldn't teach my ESL students the tilde.

    By the way, there is another possibility I don't believe anyone has mentioned, for conveying the pause:

    We should invite Wiremu. And Mary.

    The period. But I still prefer the dash.
     
  15. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    ~~~ not a tilde but a 'swung dash' (it's called something else in AE but I forget what). These are letters with tildes: ã õ ñ.
    For some reason I've become addicted to swung dashes ~ they fulfil the same jobs as standard unswung ones.
     
  16. coiffe

    coiffe Senior Member

    Oman
    English (USA)
    I like it. Can't say that I've seen it. Is it used in current literature? Internet?
     
  17. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Can't rightly say where I picked it up, Coiffe, sorry:(
     
  18. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    To use your example, TT, I'd be much more inclined to say:

    "We should invite Wiremu. I wonder, though, about inviting Mary. The last thing I need at my party is a murder." :D

    Seriously, though, I don't understand how we can invite a comma to be an afterthought or mental consideration. To me, putting a comma into the Wiremu and Mary scenario is like saying:

    A: "We're supposed to take a fruit basket to the picnic. What kinds of fruit shall we take?"
    B: Let's take apples, and oranges"

    Does this indicate an afterthought or a punctuation error?
     
  19. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    As in all communication, I suspect, it depends who is writing. The fact that you're asking the question means you think it could be an afterthought, and that was all I was arguing.
     
  20. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    US-English
    This is just another example of conservatives, who not only love rules but demand that all others obey them, butting heads with liberals, who are always arguing for more freedom. ;)

    I agree with you, by the way. I continue to emphasize that those who are fine writers all bend conservative rules of punctuation, at least now and then.

    The same group of people who are ready to correct you for adding an extra comma will also insist that you have made a mistake here:

    "Is there some rule which you think is being broken by NZF's suggestion?"

    I'm suprised a prescriptivist has not already jumped in and told you that only "that" is correct above. (I disagre with this too, by the way.) ;)

    Gaer
     
  21. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I write in BE, Gaer.
     
  22. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    Actually, no. It never occured to me that there would be a comma there in the first place. It was your post that made me think that you were using it as an afterthought.
     
  23. nzfauna

    nzfauna Senior Member

    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand, English
    Thanks, everyone, for your posts.

    Maybe I should have explained better.

    "We should invite Wiremu and Mary" to me indicates that they are a couple.

    "We should invite Wiremu, and Mary" to me indicates that they are not a couple. [I wouldn't speak this with a pause]

    "I want to discuss health and safety" to me indicates the kind of general health and safety colocation we are used to seeing.

    "I want to discuss health, and safety" to me indicates that the person wants to talk about two separate policies - a policy on health, and a policy on safety.


    So, if these examples had three items in the list, instead of two, would it be called an "Oxford comma"? If so, what do you call it if there are only two items in a list? I know some of you wouldn't use a comma in this way, but you surely can't deny that there is a difference between my examples?
     
  24. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I had a quick look at my copy of Emma, to see if I could find any examples to support NZF's case. These three, particularly the second, come very close to doing so.

    He liked very much to have his friends come and see him; and from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield, and his good nature, from his fortune, his house, and his daughter, he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure, as he liked. (Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 3)

    The marriage of Lieut. Fairfax of the _______ regiment of infantry, and Miss Jane Bates, had had its day of fame and pleasure, hope and interest; (Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 20)

    They, in their different homes, and their different ways, might be looking back on it with pleasure; (Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 44)


    Another point worth making is that I might also wish to use a comma between the couple if the second person was modified by a relative which only applied to her or him. I'd write, for instance:

    Let's invite James, and Mary, who hasn't been here to see us yet.
     
  25. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    From everything I've combed through, yes, three or more with the comma before "and" is an Oxford comma. What I still have a problem with is that two items don't make a "list" and don't therefore, need a comma.

    As for a difference in your examples, I honestly can't figure out why the comma is used to specify that Wiremu and Mary are not a couple (especially since you say that you wouldn't pause at the comma if verbalizing this sentence). I'm trying not to be obtuse but what difference does it make if they're a couple or not? Based on your reasoning, is this what you would write:?

    A: "We're supposed to take a fruit basket to the picnic. What kinds of fruit shall we take?"
    B: Let's take apples, and bananas"
     
  26. nzfauna

    nzfauna Senior Member

    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand, English
    It might make a difference to Wiremu and Mary.

    Why can't you have a list of two?

    What about:

    "Let's invite Wiremu and Mary, and Callum". [two items]

    Or, in a longer list:

    "Let's invite Wiremu and Mary, Callum and Sarah, Tama and Moana, and Carter and Anna". [four items]

    I would not write "let's take apples, and bananas". But I might write:

    "Let's take apples and bananas, and berries".
     

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