The comma is the most difficult punctuation mark to learn how to use correctly in written English. One manual of grammar and usage lists thirty-five separate and distinct uses for the comma. However, in any clause or sentence in which it occurs, the most important purpose of the comma is to help prevent ambiguity.
Writers use the serial comma (or Oxford comma) when writing about a set of three or more things that must be kept separate from each other to avoid confusion and ambiguity. For example, the sentence
Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall,
suggests that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall are the wives of the person spoken of in the start of the sentence, rather than the last two people interviewed. The lack of a comma between the two names makes them seem like they are the names of the wives.
A serial or Oxford comma (shown in bold red, below), correctly placed, eliminates this ambiguity:
Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.
However, not everyone agrees that the Oxford comma always helps to eliminate ambiguity. Some writers and grammarians advise against using the Oxford comma, and even claim that it can create ambiguity rather than resolve it.
Some time ago, I came across a two-panel cartoon humorously illustrating the use of the Oxford comma. I thought the cartoon was an ingenious way to show the importance of proper punctuation in removing ambiguity, and I wanted to share it with my friends on Facebook. But the humor of the cartoon straddled the borderline between being risqué and mildly obscene, and was not appropriate for Facebook viewing. So I set out to make my own family-friendly “cartoon” about the Oxford comma.
After some thought, I came up with the ridiculous sentence shown above, and started to make a collage based on it. When beginning the collage, I had not yet chosen the two people I wanted to include in the sentence, but I was fairly certain that if the people in question were famous, the examples and the collage illustrating them would seem funnier than if I’d used the heads of individuals not so well-known. After some thought, I settled on Presidents Washington and Lincoln, since their faces as used on our currency are recognized by most people. I chose the rhinoceros to avoid the unintended political implications that might have attached to my first choice (the elephant). The rhino illustration came from the 1920 Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary; a history of the United States, circa 1880, supplied the engravings of Washington and Lincoln.
In the course of making the collage-cartoon, I began to appreciate anew how language can create ambiguity, and inspire visual imagination and learning as well. The ludicrous juxtaposition of the two Presidents’ heads on the bodies of the rhinoceroses would give an easily remembered image example (an “object-lesson”) to those studying tedious points of grammar and usage, and might make learning about punctuation fun for a change. Because the collage was originally posted only on Facebook rather than being printed, I put a low-resolution image online.
For some reason, the cartoon became popular among my Facebook friends, and one of them asked to buy a poster of it. So I uploaded a high-resolution version of the collage to the Fine Art America website where I sell reproductions of nearly all my collages. And on that website, the Oxford Comma collage has become the most frequently viewed image among all of my digital artwork: since I posted it on the FAA site in early November of 2011, it has been viewed over 1,600 times.
The Oxford Comma was fun to think up and fun to create–a rare combination. And it reminded me that ambiguities in language and writing can often stimulate visual creativity.
(All artwork, descriptions, & other text created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)