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Collage, Montage, and the Oxford Comma

– Posted in: Aesthetics Collage & Montage Creativity Digital Art Digital Collage Inspiration Surrealism Wood Engravings Wordless Wednesday


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.

The Oxford Comma (2012). Digital collage created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.

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.)

28 Comments… add one

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28 comments… add one
Tomas January 31, 2012, 2:48 pm

this is as interesting as thought provoking and challenging. Not the eloquence of the words but the comma express our true thoughts. Thus your post as if rehabilitates the grammar rules in the poetry – enables me to discipline my heart. Thank you.
Respectfully Tomas Karkalas

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 3:20 am

Thank you very much for your visit and your thoughtful comment, Tomas. I’m glad to see you back!

Mitch January 31, 2012, 6:15 pm

I love your stuff!

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 1:17 am

Thanks, Mitch! I’m really digging all your Star Wars posts. (& I’m continually amazed at how durable a franchise it is, and how kids today love it.)

stevebethere January 31, 2012, 6:18 pm

Brilliant as usual 🙂

Thanks for stopping by and for the lid tip lol 🙂

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 1:20 am

Thanks, Steve! I’m working hard myself to keep a lid on things myself.

Joyce January 31, 2012, 6:22 pm

Good point.

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 1:22 am

Thanks, Joyce!

Create With Joy January 31, 2012, 6:55 pm

I love language and thoroughly enjoyed both your article and your creative collage!
Happy Wordless Wednesday to you!


Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 3:18 am

Thanks, Ramona! I enjoy your pictures and posts also!

Searching 4 Simplicity January 31, 2012, 7:11 pm

This is fantastic! So funny AND helpful. I am terrible with my commas I’m afraid to say 🙁

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 1:25 am

Thanks for your kind words! I’m afraid that learning to use commas is a lifelong task, like learning to write, and I certainly can’t claim to have mastered using commas.

By Word of Mouth Musings January 31, 2012, 10:10 pm

As a homeschool Mom, I am tortured by grammar – daily 😉

Eric Edelman February 1, 2012, 1:28 am

Oh, dear! Well, there are some good resources out there that make working with and learning it a great deal easier.

Carol @ Always Thyme to Cook February 1, 2012, 7:48 am

I love this post, makes me laugh. Makes me afraid of the comma 🙂 Reminds of one of my favorite books EATS SHOOTS LEAVES, I never thought a book about grammar could make me LOL! Your collage is excellent, it’s no wonder it got so many hits!

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 2:35 am

Thanks for your kind comment, Carol! I do hope my post doesn’t make you afraid of the poor little comma. (I’ve already gotten a couple of responses along that line, including one that said, “Now I’m more confused than ever.” Gee, I thought I was helping to make things clearer!) It’s interesting that you mention Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, since its title is a perfect example of the wrong use of the serial comma. And it is a very funny book!

Harmonic Mama February 1, 2012, 8:00 am

Love it!

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 3:21 am

Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Erika February 1, 2012, 8:26 am

Another brilliant post, Eric! My husband is a punctilious grammar fiend – can’t spell for the life of him but always correcting my punctuation and spoken English – but as he points out he did go to a British “Grammar School” ha ha!

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 2:58 am

Thanks, Erika. Yes, it’s annoying when a spouse corrects one’s grammar and punctuation! (I learned not to do that early on.) Fortunately (for the sake of peace in marriage!), my wife and I are both good at spelling.

Your photographs are exquisite! It’s become quite a treat to see your new post each week. Keep up the good work!

aquariann February 1, 2012, 3:26 pm

It’s amazing how one little comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence! Your collage made me giggle. ^.^

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 2:48 am

Thanks, Aquariann! I appreciate your kind words.

NYC Single Mom February 1, 2012, 8:19 pm

Love it.

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 3:06 am

Thanks for visiting and for your kind comment!

Leah H. February 2, 2012, 12:43 am

Thank’s for sharing this! So informative and so helpful:)

Visiting for WW! Hope you can stop by:)

Eric Edelman February 2, 2012, 2:59 am

Thanks for your comment and your visit!

Martina February 6, 2012, 5:34 am

hi, thanks for links up…have a great day..

Eric Edelman February 6, 2012, 3:11 pm

Thanks for your visit.

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