There is the period. For shorter pauses, there is the semicolon. And for even shorter ones, there is the comma. And then, there's the queen of them all - the Oxford Comma.
With the passage of time, my interest in the Oxford Comma had faded. However, a few days back Kausikda had managed to re-ignite my interest in the most regal of punctuation marks. I remembered all those fond memories, those lazy afternoons spent together with the Oxford Comma - and I smiled; I even laughed heartily after ages.
So what is an Oxford Comma anyway?
Consider the following sentence:
Fardeen Khan has three cousins - Suzanne, Sanjay and Farah.
The only comma used here is the one after Suzanne. Now, Oxford University Press (and a few other bodies like the Chicago Manual of Style) suggest we should write the sentence in the following fashion -
The second comma, the one after Sanjay, is commonly referred to as the Oxford Comma. The question is - why do we need an Oxford Comma?
Consider the following sentence:
He went to Mumbai to meet Bollywood's greatest leading men, Fardeen Khan and Zayed Khan.
Obviously, this is an ambiguous statement, and can mean two things:
The more probable scenario 1:
The less probable, even abominable scenario 2:
To remove the hideous ambiguity we can use two methods:
1. Use the common plural noun at the end or at the middle:
He went to Mumbai to meet Fardeen Khan, Zayed Khan and Bollywood's greatest leading men.
He went to Mumbai to meet Bollywood's greatest leading men, Fardeen Khan, and Zayed Khan.
Is the Oxford Comma, then, the solution to all the problems in the world? Does it remove all ambiguity? The answer is, in short, no.
Let us change the sentence above to include a singular instead of the plural:
Without the Oxford Comma -
He went to Mumbai to meet Bollywood's greatest leading man, Fardeen Khan and Zayed Khan.
With the Oxford Comma -
He went to Mumbai to meet Bollywood's greatest leading man, Fardeen Khan, and Zayed Khan.
Both sentences are supposed to mean the scenario below:
However, a casual reader, especially one ignorant of the colossal grandeur Bollywood has offered mankind over decades, can interpret it like this:
This time, the only way to solve this is to put the singular common noun at the end:
He went to Mumbai to meet Fardeen Khan, Zayed Khan and Bollywood's greatest leading man.
The Oxford Comma is also used to resolve ambiguity where there are a lot of conjunctions involved. For example, consider the following sentence:
The annual kickboxing contest at the Khan household was traditionally contested between Feroz Khan and Fardeen Khan and Sanjay Khan and Zayed Khan.
The above statement, despite defining a contest, does not explicitly define between whom the contest was traditionally held. It could have been, for example, held between the following opposing teams:
Feroz vs Fardeen vs Sanjay-Zayed.
Feroz vs Fardeen vs Sanjay vs Zayed.
To avoid the immense confusion and to help the tournament organisers pull up a proper schedule, we must use the Oxford Comma here.
The annual kickboxing contest at the Khan household was traditionally contested between Feroz Khan and Fardeen Khan, and Sanjay Khan and Zayed Khan.
This would help the organisers and the spectators (including the unequally talented jamais of the household - Hrithik Roshan and DJ Aqeel) immensely. This will also help us, the laymen, to get a better grasp of the contest.
That brings us to that question, the answer to which is coveted by all grammar-obsessed individuals: why use an Oxford Comma when we have the semicolon? Can the semicolon not be used for the same purpose?
In short, we can say yes to that. However, though most authors consider semicolons cool enough to be used, some detest the pause they bring to the text - a pause longer than the archetypal comma, even the Oxford one, brings to mankind.
As for the semicolon, we will devote another day, and another post to that. There will be pauses; there will be clauses; there will be colons - ascending, descending or otherwise; there will be smileys; and above all, there will be Fardeen Khan.
Keep an eye on this space.