Did Merle Haggard Marry Two Men? Another Reason to Use the Oxford Comma

Did Merle Haggard marry Kris Kristoferson and Robert Duvall?

Of course not! Don’t be stupid!

But you might not know it if you look at a newspaper clipping from an unnamed newspaper (which was originally posted on James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway blog, “Merle Haggard and the Gay Serial Comma“). The clipping features a photo of the country music star with the caption, “The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Photo from newspaper about Merle Haggard

Look very carefully at the last 9 words — “his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” The sentence, as it’s written, looks like Rural Merle was married to Kristofferson and Duvall.

That’s because the newspaper forgot to put the Oxford comma after “Kristofferson.” If they had, it would look like the documentary interviewed four people: two ex-wives, Kristofferson, and Duvall.

But the Associated Press typically does not use this device, and as a result, most newspaper writers and editors have taken it to mean “There will be NO Oxford Commas EVER!” What they forget is that the Oxford comma may be used if it will clarify a confusing sentence. And the sentence about Merle Haggard’s marriage partners is about as confusing as it can get.

Adding the Oxford comma would have told us that Kristofferson and Duvall were not part of the previous group, “his two ex-wives,” but rather, were two additional people. It’s exactly like the book author who dedicated his book “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”

I may have the occasional argument with an editor or punctuation stickler about the use of my beloved Oxford comma, but I have never seen an instance where using the Oxford comma caused confusion. On the other hand, there are occasions where blindly adhering to the “no Oxford comma” rule can cause all kinds of confusion. Or at least raise some interesting questions.

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    About Erik Deckers

    is the President of Professional Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He has been in sales and marketing since 1994. Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He co-authored No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech). His latest co-authored effort, The Owned Media Doctrine, was released in 2013.

    Comments

    1. Randy, I may be a newspaperman, but I loved my Oxford comma way before that. Plus, my background is in social science, and we use the American Psychological Association (AP) style guide over AP. I wrote like AP, punctuated like APA.

    2. Thanks for the clarification. “The Oxford comma may be used to clarify a confusing sentence.” I wondered why a newspaperman, such as you, would support the oxford comma. I assumed all newsprint people followed the AP standard. Silly me.

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