Style Note:
Clarity
1 June 2014

¶ A story on the front page of this morning’s Times begins badly. Beneath the headline, “In a First, Test of DNA Finds Root of Illness,” the report launches in lurid human-interest mode (a teenager is dying!). It’s hard to say which is worse, the headline or the text. At a minimum, the headline ought to have made it clear that the DNA in the case belonged to the pathogen, not to the patient. The first sentence of the story ought to have gone like this: “In a recent breakthrough, scientists have significantly shortened the time required to make a diagnosis, critical to dealing with life-threatening infections, by identifying pathogens by their DNA.”

¶ What’s your position on the Oxford comma? Ours is flexible, because, frankly, we believe human language is too complicated for human beings to be able to discern rules that will guarantee clear usage. We don’t even believe that clarity itself is always the most important thing: sometimes, a little ambiguity is the only way to make readers think. (See poetry.) But we think that you’ll enjoying weighing the pros and cons of the rule that prescribes placing a comma after every item in a list, even the penultimate one, the one that is followed by “and.” (Mental Floss; via The Millions)

Especially not to be missed is the final example, with Arika Okrent’s comment. Sometimes, you simply have to rewrite the sentence.

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It’s from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There’s only so much a comma can do.

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