Have you ever heard about the Oxford comma, also known as the Harvard comma, or the serial comma. No? Neither did I (although I just used one in the previous sentence) until I was confronted with this Sky News alert about the Nelson Mandela memorial service on December 10th, 2013:
“Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…”
I would never have imagined that there was something more behind that warm handshake between US president Obama and the Cuban leader Raul Castro, but that’s what I (thought I) was actually reading…
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a serial comma is “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect).”
Here are a few other sentences in which a small comma can make a big difference (the two first quotes are told to have appeared in The Times):
“Among these interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
“Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”
“During the sales team meeting they discussed the quarterly results, their key customers and their upcoming trip to Disneyland.”
Not all writers and publishers use it, and style experts disagree on whether it is required or not, but if you look at the examples above you’ll concur with me that the Oxford comma may actually be the most important punctuation mark in English (or any other tongue.)
Although commas only appear in written language, oral presenters may also benefit from punctuations. Silence sometimes says more than words, and the effective use of pauses turns an average speech into a dynamite speech. As such, it’s a good practice to insert a short moment of silence (while taking a breath) when a comma, a semicolon, or a period would be used in a printed text.
A colleagues of mine has even adopted the habit of (occasionally) speaking punctuations out loud. The first time you hear him talk like this … comma … it may sound a little bit weird … period … But when you think about it … comma … it’s actually a good way to pace your speech … comma … to emphasize your message … Oxford comma … and to avoid confusing word constructions … full stop.
And if you follow the news you won’t have missed that the odd couple, Obama and Castro, recently had another date (their fourth one already) in Havana, to further deepen their relationship.