Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

One of the most critical objectives when it comes to your writing is ensuring that your words are properly understood by the reader. You generally want to minimize any ambiguity, because you don’t want your words to be misconstrued or misinterpreted. It’s not that the words themselves are incorrect or inaccurate; it’s the way that they are being put together that could lead to unnecessary confusion.

When dealing with lists, even if they only contain two items, you need to be extra careful about how you handle your adjectives. In adding a particular attribute to one item on the list, you may be unintentionally modifying the perceived properties of another item. This can lead to a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. Let’s take a look at a simple example.

I like black coffee and donuts.

Your first reaction to this sentence may be that there is nothing wrong with it. In the strictest sense, this is true. The sentence itself is technically sound and describes a rather straightforward situation. The issue comes with the ambiguity that can arrive based on the way the sentence is constructed.

We might assume that the word “black” is only modifying the “coffee” in this sentence, but because adjectives can carry through to the other items on a list, it could be (incorrectly) applied to the “donuts” in this sentence too. As a result, the sentence can be re-interpreted thusly:

I like black coffee and black donuts.

However unlikely it might be that the speaker has a particular preference for black donuts, this is a possible reading of the first sentence. This is not dissimilar to saying that you like green eggs and ham, extending the “green” to the “ham” as well. Some may argue this is a minor point, but greater clarity is almost always more desirable. In this way, it might be better to say that you like donuts and black coffee. That way, there’s no confusion.

The issue with adjectives and lists is tangentially related to why the Oxford comma can be very important in certain circumstances. Consider this sentence:

In her acceptance speech, Justine Morrison thanked her parents, Microsoft and God.

Because of the way this sentence is punctuated, we may be led to believe that Justine is only thanking her parents… except her parents are Microsoft and God. That doesn’t make any logical sense at all, but consider if we replaced Microsoft and God with two human names like Jack and Janine. The sentence becomes cripplingly ambiguous.

By adding the Oxford comma after “Microsoft” in this sentence, immediate clarity is achieved.

In her acceptance speech, Justine Morrison thanked her parents, Microsoft, and God.

English can be a very challenging and confusing language, even for people who grew up speaking it. Whether you’re talking about black coffee or acceptance speeches, make it easier on your reader by minimizing any possible ambiguity. When your words are clear and unlikely to be misinterpreted, your message has a far better chance at being understood.