The perils of punctuation

I’ve just been reading a lovely blog post by Angus Croll about the Oxford comma.

“Eh?” I hear you say. It’s the comma that comes at the end of a list, just before the “and” or the “or” — which is why it’s also called the ’serial’ comma. It got the Oxford adjective because of endorsement long ago by that university’s Press’s ancient style manual.

What brought me up short was the realisation that, in a writing career that goes back to the 1960s, I’ve always eschewed the Oxford comma. It’d be nice to claim that this is because I got much of what passes for my education at the Other place, but in fact it’s simply due to the fact that I always thought that the Oxford comma looked wrong, somehow. Well, that and plain ignorance of the issues involved.

The great thing about Mr Croll’s post is that he provides an argument to buttress my inchoate intuition. He shows that the Oxford comma can be positively misleading. Thus:

It turns out that for every phrase that the Oxford comma clarifies, there’s another for which it obfuscates. “Through the window she saw George, a policeman and several onlookers” clearly refers to two people and some onlookers. Throw in the Oxford comma and George has become a policeman: “Through the window she saw George, a policeman, and several onlookers”.

It’s not all plain sailing, though. In the interests of objectivity, Croll cites a case where the (Cambridge?) absence of a comma can cause problems.

“She lives with her two children, a cat and a dog.”

To which I respond that I’ve known people who regarded their pets as if they were their offspring.

Anyway, I’m too old to change the habits of a lifetime. And I’m damned if I will use something from the Other place.