Word Play: should you use the Oxford comma? Let’s review

Word Play is a series for the grammar police, former English majors, word nerds, pedants and people who are curious about the evolution of language, grammar, standardization, style and prose. Note that we did not use the Oxford comma in this paragraph. 

The war on grammar standards and practices will forever be at a stalemate and for good reason: absolutely no one can agree about the standardization of the Oxford comma. What is the Oxford comma, you ask? You’ve seen it, maybe even used it (gasp!) and may have been completely unaware that for English majors, grammar nerds, Vampire Weekend fans, and pedants alike, it’s kind of a big deal. Named after the Oxford University Press who standardized it (even though most of Britain does not use it), the Oxford comma is an optional comma used before the last list item in a list of three or more things.

Banana, orange, and apple.

And not:

Banana, orange and apple.

Also known as the serial comma, it’s the optional part that has grammar fascists and writers jabbing their red pens at one another in a battle of who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s all or nothing for these folks when it comes to commas providing clarity. This is why the Oxford comma is optional—because its inclusion or exclusion should provide clarity. Here is a classic example:

I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Without the comma, it implies that Ayn Rand and God are your parents (which would, in fact, be amazing, but most likely inaccurate).

I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

The statement above clarifies that you would like to thank your parents and Ayn Rand and God. Of course, sometimes the Oxford comma is more confusing and creates ambiguity.

We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.

The sentence above implies that the stripper’s name is JFK.

We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.

Some people are audacious enough to instruct writers to use whichever method will make the sentence clearer. How dare they! Nonetheless, nearly every publication or business with professional writing has a style guide. We at Quietly, for example, were forbidden from using it in this blog until a unanimous vote decided otherwise. When it comes to creating a style guide, this is a very esoteric issue to examine, but it’s also essential for consistency.

Here’s a small pro/con list to help you out:

Pros of using the Oxford comma

  • Any person in academia should take note: the Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, American Medical Association, and others recommend the Oxford comma because it clears up ambiguity and makes lists easier to understand.
  • The hipster band Vampire Weekend has a catchy song called “Oxford Comma”.
  • FiveThirtyEight recently surveyed Americans’ preference for it. A majority were generally in favor of using it.

Cons of using the Oxford comma

  • Journalists know not to use it because back when people only read on paper, superfluous commas would take up precious column space. Now that most publications are primarily online, this is unlikely to change since Associated Press, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist are against it, though they cite it causes ambiguity and redundancy.
  • Acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy is notorious for not using commas in his work. At all. (Or other punctuation, but that’s another story.)
  • Of course, the FiveThirtyEight piece reasons that people are so fond of the Oxford comma because this is what they were taught in school. Also, the people who responded favorably to it in a survey are the people who “will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent”. So literally all of the teacher’s pets you knew in school said they prefer the Oxford comma.

And so the war rages on without any clear victor until you, yourself, take a side. It’s all or nothing for these folks.

Funny Pro Oxford Comma Memes

By Emily E. Steck

Image: Tonkla foto/Shutterstock

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