DMEAmbiguous writing can be humorous as demonstrated by the sign in the window of our small town newspaper. Does that mean, if you buy it each week you are lucky, or you are lucky if they publish it each week?

As a writer, our main goal is clarity; confusing a reader (or editor) gets our writing immediately rejected and cast aside.

A while back my two adult children and I got into a slightly heated “discussion” about grammar, specifically the use of the Oxford—or serial—comma. (As a side note, my daughter’s fiance commented how unusual it was that we discussed grammar at all, especially with such lively back-and-forth. We all smiled and continued the “discussion” until we each realized that the horse was already dead and no one had altered their original opinion. Isn’t that how it usually happens?)

Janiene, my college-educated daughter, maintains that the use of two commas in a string of three is always required, such as: David bought hamburger, tomatoes, and lettuce. As I recall the conversation–which followed a bit of imbibing—my well-read son, Jason, stated the second comma in a three word string is not necessary.

I stood (or rather, sat) in the middle, maintaining the comma usage dependent on sentence clarity. Using the example above, I would not use the second comma as tomatoes and lettuce are similar items (vegetables) whereas the first item in the list is a meat product, thus writing it, David bought hamburger, tomatoes and lettuce. Using (or not using) the second comma in this instance does not change the meaning of the sentence—that is not always the case.

Sarah followed the bride-to-be, Elizabeth, and the flower girl from the antechamber into the chapel.

This sentence, because of the second comma, is starkly ambiguous and therefore confusing: is Elizabeth the bride-to-be (used as an appositive) or a separate person? Eliminating the second comma makes it clear that the three are separate people: Sarah followed the bride-to-be, Elizabeth and the flower girl from the antechamber into the chapel.

If Elizabeth IS the bride-to-be, recasting the sentence would remove the confusion: Elizabeth, the bride-to-be, and the flower girl led Sarah from the ante-chamber into the chapel.

The discussion does not stop there, however, nor is the use of the Oxford comma a hard and fast rule: the importance, above all, is having your words and meaning clear without the slightest bit of confusion. Simply, if a sentence can be understood more than one way, it is wrong and must be recast. The only exception is when you want to imply humor, though this is a rare instance and should be used sparingly.

(Here is more discussion of Oxford comma usage)

Have you found funny uses that made you shake your head like the sign in the window of our local newspaper? Have you read your own writing and were confused about what you had written versus what you wanted to say? If so, share so we can all enjoy a chuckle.

Above all, keep writing (revision will fix ambiguities if you know to look for them),

Rick (Me, myself, and I)


This Week’s Quote:
“The first goal of writing is to have one’s words read successfully.” Robert Brault