A popular Vampire Weekend song begins with a rather blunt question: “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”
In the same vein, it’s been said that “nobody notices that stuff” — with “stuff” referring to punctuation, capitalization and other supposedly trivial matters. A certain former Daily Cal sports editor even told me that it’s “hard to get people excited about commas.”
Wrong. Wrong on all three counts. I give many, um … fudge muffins about Oxford commas — and all other commas, for that matter — and I certainly notice and am excited by them. While the Oxford comma debate in particular has been beaten to death, there are certainly other instances in which, to borrow from a quote from earlier coverage of the Fed chair nomination saga, “the placement of a comma can move the markets.” OK, perhaps that quote was used entirely out of context, and perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see where I’m going with this.
Commas may not (typically) alter markets, but they certainly have the capacity to alter meaning. With that said, I’d like to share a few examples:
Sentence No. 1: “The cats, who ate the pizza, climbed the flowerpot.”
Meaning: All the cats in question climbed the flowerpot. They also happened to eat the pizza.
Sentence No. 2: “The cats who ate the pizza climbed the flowerpot.”
Meaning: Only the pizza-eating cats climbed the flowerpot.
So why do these two strikingly similar sentences have such different meanings? Well, the secret is in the commas. In the first sentence, “who ate the pizza” is enclosed in commas because it is nonessential. It can be omitted from the sentence without changing its premise — what I am saying is that all the cats in this scenario climbed the flowerpot, and the pizza is irrelevant.
In the second sentence, in contrast, “who ate the pizza” is not enclosed in commas, indicating that it is essential and cannot be removed without changing the sentence’s meaning. In this case, I am saying that only a specific subset of cats — those who ate the pizza — climbed the flowerpot. Removing that portion of the sentence, then, creates ambiguity with regard to which cats did the climbing. (On a side note, cats should not be eating pizza, but that’s another story.)
If you’re still confused — or appalled by newly discovered feline dietary habits — let’s consider another example.
Sentence No. 1: “My friend, Sophie, is a copy editor.”
Sentence No. 2: “My friend Sophie is a copy editor.”
Again, the first sentence includes a nonessential element that can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. In the second sentence, the commas are omitted because, seeing as I have more than one friend, the name is essential in indicating which friend I am referring to. This does, however, have important implications: In the first example, Sophie must be my only friend if we can eliminate her name without introducing any ambiguity. (Admittedly, though, if this were the case, I would not be too disappointed, as Sophie is a perfectly adequate friend.)
In the event that you’re still not convinced commas matter at all, let’s examine the following:
“Stop clubbing, baby seals,” a well-known meme reads, sarcastically depicting cuddly animals on the dance floor in an attempt to promote the importance of grammar. Here, the comma is unwarranted — the intent (presumably) is to promote an entirely different message, which happens to be targeted at animal abusers: “Stop clubbing baby seals.” If you have some sort of moral opposition to young seals frequenting the nightclub scene, however, perhaps the original sentence and its comma will serve your needs — regardless, that comma makes a huge difference.
Finally, a magazine cover error went viral after the headline “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” was printed. Note that a corrected version of this sentence would read as follows: “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family and her dog.” The comma matters here because it separates items in a list.
Congratulations. You and the oh-so-handy comma just saved an innocent family from a terrible fate. And that, if anything, excites me.