A Comma Problem

A 2015 murder case is a good example of why so many officers feel confused about commas. I’m going to discuss a sentence from a newspaper article about the case. But the same problem often shows up in police reports, and you may also have to grapple with it if you’re working on a college degree.

Shannon Lamb, a Delta State University professor, allegedly killed his girlfriend, Amy Prentiss, and another professor, Ethan Schmidt. As police closed in on him, Lamb took his own life.

The Associated Press published a photo of a hand-written note provided by police in Gautier, Mississippi. (You can read the entire story at this link.)

When I read the caption under the photo, I was bothered by this wording: 

 …accused of killing Prentiss, his girlfriend and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.

How many people – one, two, or three? A girlfriend named Prentiss who’s a colleague, or a girlfriend named Prentiss and another person who’s a colleague, or Prentiss, a girlfriend, and a colleague?

But if you add another comma, it’s still confusing:

Penn State University professor Shannon Lamb is accused of killing Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.

This sentence illustrates why it’s so important to teach writers to think rather than simply have them diagram sentences and complete workbook exercises.

The comma before and is often called an Oxford comma. Some authorities claim you have to use it. Others claim you should never use it. They’re all wrong, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Here’s what I would have done: Add the word both. The revised sentence would read, “Lamb is accused of killing both Prentiss, his girlfriend, and a colleague, fellow Delta State professor Ethan Schmidt.” Problem solved!

There are two takeaways for you.

1.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can solve any sentence problem with a punctuation mark. Sometimes you’ll need to cross out a sentence and rewrite it. Often I find that I need to break one long sentence into two shorter ones – there’s no other way to make my point clear.

2.  There is no absolute rule about the Oxford comma. Book publishers require it; newspapers forbid it. When I’m writing for myself (this blog, for example), I prefer to use it.

Note that I said “prefer.” When the Oxford comma doesn’t work in a sentence, I don’t use it. Hooray for common sense!

keyboard with an Oxford comma key


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