The Oxford Comma

Booksquare has written a passionate defense of the serial comma, pointing to Brenda Coulter’s equally vivacious endorsement of a puncutation mark too frequently used by investment bankers.

While I admire their brio, I must respectfully disagree with these two lovely bloggers. The serial comma (also referred to as the Oxford comma, the Harvard Comma, the pretentious comma, the party-pooping comma, the humorless comma, the comma with the chip on its shoulder, the comma that won’t put out, the comma that would never join a Bunny Hop, the monastic comma and the comma that won’t sing “Comma Chameleon”) takes the fun out of a lengthy list. It is utterly redundant. It insults the readers’ intelligence. Most importantly, in nearly every circumstance, it comes across as the most lifeless and stiffest puncutation mark ever devised.

Consider the fun of a sentence like:

The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly.

Now did the gigolo order bananas and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Did the gigolo order a bananas served with a side of peanut butter and jelly? Or did he order three separate items? It’s the kind of amiguity that makes life (and the sentence) quite interesting. Do people order bananas in an unusual manner? That’s fun!

Of course, when we add the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes disappointingly clear:

The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter, and jelly.

Now granted, as pointed out by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, there are some instances in which being explicit is necessary. The sentence, “On his journey, he encountered George Bush, a genius and cunnilingus expert,” is of course quite problematic. But given that the English language is already a troubling bundle of inconsistencies, why prohibit its use in toto? Why not keep the reader guessing? Can not a reader figure out that George Bush is entirely discrete from the other two parties!

While it is true that Strunk & White endorse the serial comma (under Section II, Rule 2), I contend that this particular puncutation rule does not apply, because their hearts are not completely into it. They write:

This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

And while I’m normally a big Elements of Style booster, let us consider that even the most virtuous and adorable authorities are capable of slip-ups. The Government Printing Office, folks! Was ever a more lifeless entity ever cited by Strunk & White?

Let us also consider that the hard-core serial comma boosters are found most frequently in law firms and investment banking firms. And what business do such lifeless husks have dictating the English language? What we have here is a clear war on fun and ambiguity.

Now a person by the name of Miss Grammar concludes, “Except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma,” and remains puzzled by the fact that a substantial chunk of writers and English mavens still rebel against this. Consider that Vassar has issued a supplement to Strunk & White. AP Style is against the serial comma. So perhaps this isn’t a case of total prohibition or complete sanction, but rather a situation in which, like any helpful tool, you can use the tool or not use it.

But it’s certainly reassuring to know that, on this grammatical point, the earth will continue to rumble.

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  1. But there is no ambiguity, no other way to punctuate “On his journey, he encountered George Bush, a genius and cunnilingus expert.” That sentence can only be about W. Only if he, or the other two parties, had been described as “a genius and A cunnilingus expert” would there be confusion.

    Also, in the gigolo sentence, the idea that he ordered bananas and peanut butter and jelly isn’t the result of textual ambiguity, but readerly miscomprehension.

  2. Well, that’s the whole point, Ron. Someone might read that and think that he ONLY encountered George Bush on his journey. Or three separate people: George Bush, a genius, and a cunnilingus expert.

  3. While I will entertain the notion of going wild for the sake of creating effect, I have, once or twice (or more), forgone said comma. It was hard, because my every instinct demanded that I slide my middle finger, right hand into position… I will also ignore the GWB is an expert in anything thought. Because I am polite.

    It is clear that you are operating from the vantage of youth while I once diagrammed a sentence. Poorly. Sentences should not be diagrammed in public.

  4. I too have had to diagram sentences in my youth! And I celebrate the Oxford comma, for it not only removes ambiguity but provides an opportunity to pause and enjoy the beauty of a well-crafted sentence.

  5. of all the fucked up things to deja-vu, why do I have to deja-vu reading the comment “sentences should not be diagrammed in public”. time travel, alive and well here.

    For the record, I do whatever Microsoft Word tells me.Obey the paperclip.

  6. And why not expose the guts of the machinery? Where is the shame in that? It’s not as if we have defecated on the dinner table here.

    The issue here is one of playfulness, ambiguity and feel. Surely, anyone can see in that last sentence three distinct items.

    I will say, however, that abdicating to an animated paperclip strikes me as a risky endeavor.

  7. The silliness and faux rebelliousness of a sentence such as “Of course, when we add the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes disappointingly clear” is, er, disappointing.

    There isn’t any lack of clarity in the sentence “The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly.” In this instance, the gigolo ordered three items. Adding the serial comma does not create clarity, only a sentence of bad grammar. Correctly would be “The gigolo ordered bananas and peanut butter and jelly.”

    And last, at least as an example (and pretending the poor grammar doesn’t exist), it’s a poor defense to say that there is some magic happening when the serial comma is removed. Because there isn’t.

  8. Hoo-ey, people sure get het up about this. In my own writing, I use the serial comma bc it makes sense to me. I see what Ed’s saying about ambiguity and playfulness, but if something’s unclear, it pulls me out of the story and I’m not crazy about that.

    But I also work as an editor, and if I’m doing someone else’s novel and there are no serial commas, then I take it to mean the author really doesn’t want them. It’s part of that writer’s style. So I leave the text alone (the publishers I work for approve). With non-fiction, unless the publisher specifically says the commas must be used to conform with house style, I also leave everything as written. If the rest of the work seems intelligent and coherent, then I assume that it’s a considered decision.

  9. I should also point out to everybody that this comes from a guy who was incorrectly using “erstwhile” before Mr. Sarvas was kind enough to point out the correct definition. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. At least we are spared each other’s mispronunciations. For years I thought “segue” was said se-gew (to rhyme with “a few”).

  11. Oh yeah! I’m still a terrible mispronouncer! I once embarassed myself in a Russian history class when I delivered a stirring argument and watched my argument transformed into nothing as I pronounced “polemic” POLL-EE-MICK and was corrected by the professor. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. I am so bad with pronunciating. I studied Latin for years and am used to sounding out each letter in a word. When it comes to French? Ugh, I am such an asshole.
    I feel conflicted about the serial comma. There’s no clear rule from what I gathered in my copyediting class. It’s more a matter of preference. It just looks right to me to use it!

  13. I HATE THE SERIAL COMMA! Seriously, I’m delighted with this post, I love Strunk & White and yet it physically pains me to see that extra comma put in. And on the rare occasion when an article I’ve published has had those commas inserted by the copy-editor, I can hardly bear to look at it. EVIL!

    (NB Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels have a running thing about the Oxford comma, only I think–in my rather blurry memory of them–that Morse falls down in its favor…)

  14. Put me down for in favor of the serial comma.

    Hiss, my second-grade teacher told me that inanimate objects can’t take the possessive, because they are “not a person.” Later, working as a copyeditor, I learned a great number of absurd rules that had been passed along to innocent children by stupid adults (you can’t start a sentence with “but,” a paragraph can’t have just one sentence, etc., etc. etc.).

    Ed, I set you straight on “erstwhile.” I never get credit for my great achievements.

  15. Sam: Quite right! My apologies! It was Mark who responded, “I wasn’t going to say anything.”


    Hopefully that suffices.

  16. To my eye, “The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly,” is simply incorrect grammar. I would read that as, “The gigolo ordered bananas AND peanut butter and jelly.” As in, fruit and a sandwich. If he wanted fruit, a glob of peanut butter, and a glob of jelly, it would use that serial comma because each item is separate and the commas separate them.

    The entire paragraph right after that sentence bothers me. First you say that sometimes, you have to be explicit. Then you say the reader can figure that sentence out on their own. Make up your mind.

    In the sentence about Bush, genius and cunnilingus expert are describing Bush. Based on your punctuation, that sentence is calling him those things. With the ‘extra’ comma, it is clear that on his journey, he encountered three people. I would not think to myself that Bush is not a genius and therefore three people are being described there. I would think the author is crazy for calling Bush a genius. We’re not touching the cunnilingus part.

  17. The only time I don’t use the “oxford” comma is when the last two items in the list go together. In this case I would also not use a comma between them in the middle of the list.

    e.g. The gigolo ordered bananas, wine, salad, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
    The gigolo ordered bananas, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, wine, and salad.

    I think it would be safe to assume that if peanut butter and jelly were listed as they were in the example in the post then they would be separate items. Otherwise it would have been listed as a pb&j sandwich. If it were not then the author is either deliberately being obtuse or not a very good writer IMHO.

  18. The textbooks I grew up on say the serial comma is “not required” … but that doesn’t mean “not allowed.”
    So, does it all come down to personal opinion? And if so, all that really matters is the discovery of which way my teachers lean so I may type accordingly.

  19. Quite annoyed by the Oxford comma myself, and wish it would just fade out of English usage, at least in simple lists. (My friend compared the Oxford comma to Kanye Westโ€”he said that it interrupted the flow of the sentence in an obnoxious way. *snort*)

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