On Sentence Clarity and Oxford Comma Memes

If you are a writer for any appreciable amount of time you will come across one of the great debates of our trade: the oxford comma.

This is not to be about that. Rather, I would like to talk about the example sentence being passed around on a meme. Yes, this is a discussion about a meme, but as it is being passed around to educate, I want to comment on it.

There are a few, but they have similar structure to this one.

We invited the rhinoceri, Washington(,) and Lincoln.

(Oxford comma in parenthesis)

The meme goes like this: with the Oxford comma, you have a list of three things (a group of rhinos, two people, one named Washington, the other Lincoln) but without it, just two things (two rhinos, one named Lincoln and the other Washington, which are odd but acceptable names for rhinoceri).

The sentence, while correct, is poorly constructed. While one can argue the function of the comma, it is the ambiguity of the sentence, not the Oxford comma that is the issue, and why the sentence fails.

Perhaps context would have fixed the ambiguity, but we should not rely on the surroundings when clarity can be presented in the sentence.

The striking part of this sentence is the specificity of “the” for the rhinoceri. THE rhinoceri were invited, not “some” or “a few” or any other designation. Clearly this was done to make the sentence ambiguous.

“The rhinoceri” are not the same rhinoceri as “some rhinoceri” or even “a few friendly rhinoceri”, etc. I suspect the context of this sentence would remove the ambiguity, as it would explain the use of ‘the’ over any more appropriate word.

But, back to our list. There are two situations: Washington, Lincoln and a whole bunch of animals are coming; two animals are coming, one named Washington, one named Lincoln.

There are three things in my sentence

The first point of this situation is ordering in your list. In general, it is best to go specific to unspecific, as well was singular to plural.

We invited Washington, Lincoln and the rhinoceri.

Of course you could argue that “Lincoln and the Rhinoceri” could be a punk band, but that’s just you being difficult.

Since there is a change of the noun from both proper to general and from singular to plural between our subjects, care needs to be taken in the phrasing.

We invited our friends, Washington, and Lincoln, and several rhinoceri.

or perhaps:

We invited Washington, Lincoln, as well as the rhinoceri.

They are just two Rhinos with odd names

The first solution to this one is a simple change of punctuation.

We invited the rhinoceri: Washington and Lincoln.

However, it would be better to make the sentence read clearly.

We invited two rhinoceri named Washington and Lincoln.

Clarity is key

The take away is not that a single punctuation mark can fix all of your problems.

It is that naming rhinoceri “Washington” and “Lincoln” is probably a great idea.

But you didn’t tell me whether to use an Oxford comma!

If you are a lawyer, always use an Oxford comma. This is their fault, after all, stemming from nit-picking text in contracts. IANAL YMMV AAFYB.

As for the rest of you, do what you will, just be consistent about it, and in your sentence structure, be clear.


And for those wondering, “rhinoceri” is not the proper plural of “rhinoceros.”

Author: jake

poet, editor, kilt wearing heathen. he/him