I wish to talk to you today about something of extreme importance: the always-controversial Oxford comma.
I am going through a bit of a traumatic experience at the moment – the introduction to journalism and its accompanying Associated Press style of writing, after years spent instead in English classes for my minor. This transition has not come completely without stress. For example, in the majority of my writing now, I can no longer write that something was “okay,” but have to express that it was “OK.” I don’t even write OK in my texts; it has always seemed like an odd spike in volume to me.
But the biggest point of stress in this transition by far has been the emotional loss of my dear Oxford commas. And the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.” The definition goes on further to explain that “it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words: These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.”
There are some now widely-seen examples out there pleading for use of the Oxford comma. Sentences like “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” have been much-discussed among the passionate and illiterate alike (as always, the passionate are the ones that agree with me, the illiterate are the ones who oppose me. Looking at you, Vampire Weekend).
Those fighting against the Oxford comma will say that the above sentence merely needs more careful arranging so as not to indicate that you were the child of Ayn Rand and God, like this: “This book is dedicated to Ayn Rand, God and my parents.”
I say that this idea of rearrangement instead of a serial comma is inefficient at best and a dangerous precedent at worst.
First of all, the addition of an innocent and clarifying Oxford comma is way more grammatically efficient than the split-second of confusion that its lack will ensure. Why put the onus on the reader to have to sparse the potential groupings of your list when you can simply and quickly clarify yourself with an easy and efficient Oxford comma?
Secondly, not all sentences are to be best served by a rearrangement of order. The author could easily have reasons to order their list in a way which demands the use of an Oxford comma. Writers won’t always be able to casually throw the end of their list, their “my parents” in the previous example, to the front of the line. It is dangerous to assume such a cookie-cutter attitude toward language, and I must ask – how dare you?
Gus Lubin in his Business Insider article, “The Oxford Comma is Extremely Overrated,” asserts that both use and non-use of the serial comma can cause equal levels of confusion. He uses another famous example sentence to demonstrate his point: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” This is, of course, a sentence that argues for the use of the Oxford comma to avoid troubling questions of these famous figures being stripper names, or strippers themselves.
But Lubin argues that the premise of this sentence can be used for the opposite argument as well. “We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin,” uses a serial comma, but now seems to indicate that the stripper is directly being called JFK, once again missing the supposed true meaning of the list.
However, as one astute commenter on the article also pointed out, this anti-serial comma argument actually holds no water. This second sentence that Lubin uses is actually not a usable sentence at all, for the “JFK” in that sentence cannot refer to the stripper, as it would mean that “JFK” is an appositive. And while appositives (which, to paraphrase Merriam Webster, simply means a noun that relates to an adjacent noun, further clarifying it) are usually formed with a pair of commas, such a restrictive appositive in this sentence would dramatically change its meaning, so the commas must be omitted entirely. Thus, Lubin’s example is not simply a paralleled misleading sentence, but altogether simply incorrect.
Walt Hickey, of FiveThirtyEight, wrote on the subject in his June 17, 2014 article “Elitist, Superfluous, Or Popular? We Polled Americans on the Oxford Comma.” The survey conducted found that 57 percent of the Americans polled favored use of the Oxford Comma, while non-users totaled 43 percent. So, Americans are fairly split on the issue.
Hickey’s article also included some other interesting tidbits. The survey also asked its respondents to rate their own grammar. Those who previously said that they prefer the Oxford comma were much more likely to rate their own grammar as ‘Excellent’ (63 percent compared to 37 percent of non-Oxford comma users), or ‘Very Good’ (61 percent to 39 percent), while those who preferred no Oxford comma more often rated their own grammar as ‘Fair’ (59 percent to 41 percent).
Hickey draws from this data that those who prefer Oxford comma “tend to be the kind of people who will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent. Zealous, but not really the humble type.” This goes along with the narrative that the Oxford comma, and its proponents, are grammatical elitists, or snobs, or however you wish to put it.
I draw a slightly different premise from that same data. The Oxford comma doesn’t bring with it grammatical snobbishness, but merely clarity, rhythm and most importantly – confidence. Being able to comfortably wield the serial comma brings new confidence to a person, enough to even rate your own grammar more highly. Sometimes, that confidence in yourself can mean all the difference in trying something new and amazing with friends, getting that raise at work or scoring a date with the cutie at the coffee shop.
The Oxford comma makes your life better. Use it.
And for anyone who is inclined to take any of what I’ve just said too seriously, Hickey’s article had one last tidbit that is worth sharing. Hickey quotes John McIntyre, editor behind The Baltimore Sun’s language blog, as saying this: “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”