A Serial Comma Creates Confusion

I subscribe to streaming movies on Netflix. I look for comma errors to discuss on this blog. Join those two behaviors and you get this post. 

I was looking at the movie description for Merlin and the Book of Beasts, and I came across this poser: 

Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter, Avlynn and Merlin to reclaim the city. 

This blurb poses two questions:

  1. Who is Avlynn?
  2. How many people will reclaim the city? 

First problem: Who is Avlynn?

If Avlynn is King Arthur’s daughter, then Avlynn is in apposition to King Arthur’s daughter, meaning Avlynn equals King Arthur’s daughter. If that is the case, then this description is missing a comma. 

An appositive needs to be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas, both before and after. (This follows Zen Comma Rule J: Separate non-restrictive appositives with commas.) Thus, if Avlynn is King Arthur’s daughter, then the sentence should read as follows: 

Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter, Avlynn, and Merlin to reclaim the city. 

But if we put in that second comma, we create even more confusion because that comma looks like a serial comma, making Avlynn a separate person from King Arthur’s daughter. 

Maybe Avlynn is not King Arthur’s daughter, and the sentence doesn’t need an additional comma because Avlynn is not an appositive for King Arthur’s daughter. If we assume the writer knows about commas, then this is the case. 

But we still don’t know who Avlynn is. 

Second problem: How many people will reclaim the city? 

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I espouse the serial comma (the comma before and or but in a series, which follows Zen Comma Rule B: Use the serial comma). This sentence doesn’t have a comma before and, which makes me think this is not a series. Or that the writer doesn’t use the serial comma. 

Based on the lack of a comma after Avlynn (discussed in Problem 1), we could assume that Avlynn is not King Arthur’s daughter, so this movie description seems to indicate that three people will reclaim the city: (1) King Arthur’s daughter, (2) Avlynn, and (3) Merlin. If this is the case, the sentence has a series but didn’t use the serial comma. 

An unlikely interpretation is that the entire expression “Avlynn and Merlin” is in apposition to King Arthur’s daughter, meaning the daughter has two names: Avlynn and Merlin. If this is the case, then only one person will reclaim the city. 

Now we have:
One person: King Arthur’s daughter, who is named both Avlynn and Merlin. Not likely.
Two people: (1) King Arthur’s daughter (who is named Avlynn) and (2) Merlin. If so, the writer forgot a required comma.
Three people: (1) King Arthur’s daughter, (2) Avlynn, and (3) Merlin. This seems most likely if we assume the writer doesn’t use the serial comma.

Conclusion

This description is confusing. 

Solution

I didn’t see the movie, and probably won’t. Even so, I’m going to assume Avlynn is the name of King Arthur’s daughter. If we leave the sentence alone, but put in the comma required by the appositive, we get this: 

Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter, Avlynn, and Merlin to reclaim the city. 

This might be interpreted to mean three people, not the assumed two, because the comma after Avlynn seems like a serial comma. 

The solution is to completely revise the sentence and avoid the confusing comma. One possibility is as follows. 

Now it’s up to Merlin and King Arthur’s daughter, Avlynn, to reclaim the city. 

This revision gives us two people (which I assume is correct) and has commas in the correct places. With the and after Merlin, the sentence cannot be interpreted as a series of three names. 

What’s the Point?

The point is commas clarify the meaning in most cases, but when comma rules overlap, such as the serial comma and the commas for appositives, they may create confusion. The solution is not to break comma rules. The solution is to revise the sentence.

A careful writer stays alert to such possibilities and makes sure the sentence means what is intended.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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  1. #1 by Andy Hollandbeck (@4ndyman) on September 20, 2011 - 10:34 am

    Another possible solution: I don’t know how many daughters Arthur had, but if he had more than one and one of them is named Avlynn, that information becomes restrictive, and all the commas can be dropped from the sentence: “Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter Avlynn and Merlin to reclaim the city. ” It looks weird, but it’s grammatical. (It sounds less weird, though, if you list Merlin first.)

  2. #2 by preciseedit on September 20, 2011 - 10:44 am

    Yes, you’re right. If King Arthur has more than one daughter, then this sentence needs no commas. In this case, we follow Zen Comma Rule K: Don’t use commas to separate restrictive appositives. If this is the case, this sentence would STILL have a comma error: an extra comma before Avlynn.

    300 Days of Better Writing, day #78, proposes putting the most complicated item at the end of a series. Even though this sentence has only two people (we think!), this tip would help. This would give us either
    “Now it’s up to Merlin and King Arthur’s daughter, Avlynn” (non-restrictive) or
    “Now it’s up to Merlin and King Arthur’s daugther Avlynn” (restrictive).

  3. #3 by Sandy on September 20, 2011 - 10:45 am

    I agree that the sentence could use some tweaking.

    Do we also need to think about how many daughters King Arthur has? I could see a version with no commas:

    Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter Avlynn and Merlin to reclaim the city.

    This would refer to two people (Avlynn and Merlin). “King Arthur’s daughter” is an adjective describing “Avlynn.” If Avlynn were busy that day, we could perhaps see another daughter:

    Now it’s up to King Arthur’s daughter Buffy and Merlin to reclaim the city.

    Examples like this should serve as a reminder to always have a fresh set of eyes read your work. The movie description made sense to the person who wrote it, but the reader won’t necessarily see it the same way.

    Thank you for making me think about commas today!

  4. #4 by preciseedit on September 20, 2011 - 10:59 am

    King Arthur’s daughter Buffy? Buffy Pendragon? That’s funny.

    But yes, you’re right. If he has two or more daughters, the sentence won’t need a commas.

  5. #5 by Jerry on August 29, 2014 - 2:54 am

    In this case, there are many ways to solve the problem. Of course, the right solution would depend on the author’s intent and meaning.

    If there were two people involved, I would say something like “Now it’s up to Avlynn (King Arthur’s daughter) and Merlin to reclaim the city.”

    If there were three people involved, again depending on the author’s intent, I would say something like “Now it’s up to Guinevere (King Arthur’s daughter), and Avlynn, and Merlin to reclaim the city.” I just use the name Guinevere only as an example.

    In other words, if commas confuse, then use additional parentheses, other punctuation, and rewording to clarify. The purpose of proper punctuation is to elucidate, not obfuscate! If punctuation confuses, then you’re not using it properly!

    “Language evolves because of the ignorance of the masses, not the rules of the educated. That’s why we speak English and Spanish today, and not Anglo-Saxon and Latin!” — Jerry D. Patillo

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