Grammar Moses: If you're taking the SAT, bring a sharp pencil, a clear mind, and an Oxford comma


Because you're reading this, you already know that in English there is probably an exception to every rule.

And every rule is debated. Endlessly.

I knew this when I waded into the tsunami that is the Great Oxford Comma Debate a few weeks ago.

My position was that in certain instances, the Oxford comma (a comma after the penultimate item in a list of things) can save your cheese in a court of law. And in everyday prose it can provide clarity.

But many of us -- most, it seems, in journalism circles -- do not use it routinely.

Turns out, there is a very important time to embrace the Oxford comma, says Matthew Pietrafetta, who founded Academic Approach, a tutoring and test preparation company, after getting a doctorate in English Language and Literature at Columbia University in New York.

"While some question the relevance of the Oxford comma, those taking the SAT or ACT must accept it as a necessity. Use of the Oxford comma is properly observed, so it's time to study, learn, and master the Oxford comma," he wrote.

Yes, he used one in that sentence.

I asked Pietrafetta to send me a sample SAT question to make his point.

I will abbreviate the question, because it is tortuous:

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"Throughout the 19th century, the chain of lighthouses along the East Coast was of crucial significance to America's economic well-being and its national security. However, by the mid-years of the 20th century, radar and radio had reduced the need for lighthouses and negated the need for lighthouse keepers (who were eventually replaced by electronic timers, fog sensors, and solar panels). Once a quintessential piece of the nation's public infrastructure, lighthouses are now more likely to be offloaded onto the private real estate market. Cities states and the federal government have attempted to avoid burdensome upkeep responsibilities by enticing wealthy private investors with promises of prestige and romance.


B) Cities, states and the federal government, have attempted

C) Cities, states, and, the federal government, have attempted

D) Cities, states, and the federal government have attempted

The answer is D.

In Answer B, there is an errant comma after "government."

In Answer C, there is an errant comma after "and." Of course, I wouldn't put one before "and" unless I were taking the SAT.

So if you want to get into college, you'd best learn to use the Oxford comma.

Something serious

We write about death a lot.

It's a drawback of the trade but an inescapable one.


We strive to do so with equal measures of delicacy and decorum.

I wanted to let you in on a conversation we had in the newsroom after the recent murder of a Schaumburg woman in her apartment.

We had an initial web headline that said the woman was "strangled to death."

One of our editors questioned that, saying if someone is strangled it is assumed the person has died. He called "strangled to death" redundant.

Just as if someone drowns or is electrocuted, it's generally accepted that person is dead.

Another countered that death isn't a necessary result of strangulation, but yet another noted that Webster's first preference is that death is assumed.

So that is what we went with.

I mention this not to exploit the situation but to explain that at least six people got involved in the discussion before we made a decision.


Words matter. We might make mistakes on occasion, but it's not because we don't care.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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