What the internet desperately needs is another blog post about the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma – also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, and the what the hell is wrong with you people why can’t you just get a life – provokes strong opinions.

It’s the difference between these two sentences:

1a) I ordered bacon, eggs and beans.
1b) I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans.

The Oxford comma is the last one, before the “and” in version 1b.

Should it be there?

Some people say no (loudly): it looks fussy and slows the sentence down. The “and” is quite enough to separate the last two items in the list.

Other people say yes (even more loudly): it’s helpful for clarity. Well, maybe not in this case, but it’s more important when the individual items in a list are grammatically more complex, especially if they contain “and”s. Compare:

2a) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs and toast.
2b) They ordered bacon and beans, chips, and eggs and toast.
2c) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs, and toast.

Sentence 2a, without the Oxford comma, is ambiguous about which ingredients make up which meals: it could mean either 2b or 2c.

Or:

3a) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire and a hatstand.
3b) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire, and a hatstand.

While 3a may take a moment to decipher – is the hatstand part of the sculpture? – 3b makes it clearer.

The Oxford comma can also help in cases like these well-known examples:

4a) We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
4b) We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

5a) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
5b) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the problem is confusion between different types of comma. In 4a, is the comma after “strippers” there to keep items separate in the list or to introduce the extra information (an appositive phrase) that JFK and Stalin are the strippers?

Likewise, 5a might suggest that Ayn Rand and God are my parents. But 4b and 5b make the separation clear.

Now, sure, there’s no real danger of misunderstanding in these two cases; rather, the risk is of a brief sense of absurdity. There are more sensible examples, though:

6a) I asked my neighbours, an architect and a builder.
6b) I asked my neighbours, an architect, and a builder.

So the Oxford comma can be useful. But given that it hardly seems necessary in “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans”, should we use it all the time?

The AP Stylebook says no, recommending it only in more complex or potentially ambiguous cases: “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag was red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.”

But the Oxford Guide to Style says yes: “Given that the final comma is sometimes necessary to prevent ambiguity, it is logical to impose it uniformly”. The Chicago Manual of Style also favours using it consistently, as do Bryan Garner, Steven Pinker and others. (It’s more common in American writing than in British.)

I agree that consistency is good – other things being equal. But other things are not equal. There are disadvantages to using the Oxford comma.

It can slow a sentence down. This is obviously subjective and depends on what you’re used to, but I find “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans” pretty ponderous and deliberate.

The New Yorker’s Mary Norris has taste that goes the other way, favouring the Oxford comma everywhere: “I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective.” Well, if starch is what you want…

She adds:

The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. … The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. … It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it.

Sure, this is thoughtful (it’s in a great extract from what looks like being a great book by Norris), but it makes two huge assumptions.

It assumes that readers consciously choose how commas come across to them. And it assumes that readers will understand the publication’s policy on commas and the reasons behind it. Even for the New Yorker, that feels like a stretch.

As a copyeditor, I’m a big fan of the fine distinctions copyeditors fret over. But we have to have some perspective about whether our readers understand those distinctions the same way we do – or even at all. Sometimes we might be zealously and ingeniously splitting hairs that are invisible to the untrained eye.

There’s a second, more serious problem with the Oxford comma: sometimes it creates the very ambiguity or absurdity that it’s supposed to remove. I’m amazed that its partisans so rarely acknowledge this, because you only need to tweak their examples slightly to see it:

7a) We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.
7b) We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.

8a) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.
8b) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the tables are turned: 7b might suggest that JFK was the stripper, 8b that Rand was my mother. 7a and 8a are clear.

So we have to choose whether to use an Oxford comma or not in each case. A blanket policy, pro or anti, just won’t work.

And it gets worse. Try this pair:

9a) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate and a priest.
9b) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate, and a priest.

Neither is clear. Does 9a mention three people or one? Does 9b mention three people or two? We need to rephrase somehow:

9c) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate, and a priest.
9d) I spoke to a priest and my uncle, a magistrate.
9e) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate and a priest.
9f) I spoke to a magistrate, a priest and my uncle.
9g) I spoke to my uncle as well as a magistrate and a priest.

We have to face the awful truth: the Oxford comma is not a magical blade that can chop any sentence into slices of perfect meaning. It’s just one fallible tool among many.

Use it when you must, avoid it when you must, choose as you prefer (or as your readers will prefer) when you can, and rewrite whenever that would be better.

Oh, and try not to get too worked up about it.

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Comments

  • naturelover  On March 2, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Thank you for sharing such an informative post!

  • Naomi Harvey  On March 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    A friend of mine used the Oxford comma in a simple list of colours and then pointed out her useage as if it meant she was somehow superior to ‘mere, non-oxford-comma-using mortals’ because of it. When I pointed out that the comma was unneccessary, she got a little defensive and kept repeating “but i’m not wrong!”

    I prefer to re-write my sentences to avoid using it. As you say, it can add as much ambiguity as it takes away.

  • Nicola David  On March 2, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Agree with some – not all – of this (as British people are likely to do). As an example, why wouldn’t you just say “They ordered bacon, beans, chips, eggs and toast”? Why have those 2 extra ‘and’s?

    • Tom Freeman  On March 2, 2015 at 7:37 pm

      Bacon, beans, chips, eggs and toast sounds like a pretty good breakfast to me. But if there are three people with smaller appetites than me, and all their orders turn up on the same plate, it’s going to make things tricky…

  • Nikki Graham  On March 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I believe Oxford University Press have changed their minds about the serial comma. In the New Hart’s Rules (published 2005) it states that the ‘general rule is that one style or the other should be used consistently’, and that it might be helpful to use an Oxford comma or two for clarity in a text even if you haven’t used it throughout.

  • Jonathon Owen  On March 3, 2015 at 1:30 am

    What I’d love to see is some real research on whether it makes a difference one way or the other—maybe a study involving eye-tracking or reading comprehension or something. I’m a fan of the serial comma myself, but I’d wager that consistency is the most important factor.

    The question is, what real researcher would want to study something so trivial and pedantic?

  • emilycommander  On March 3, 2015 at 8:34 am

    Having got sick of biased and unreasonable debates about the Oxford comma, I loved this balanced post, thank you. If clarity is the goal (and sometimes the goal might be ambiguity) the only thing that you can do is to look at the context to decide whether or not that extra comma is needed.

  • Rob  On March 3, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    But taking away the Oxford comma is the thin end of the wedge, leaving the way open for illiteracy, sodomy and cannibalism.

  • ape  On March 3, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    I’d probably use parentheses or em dashes to clarify 9a and 9b.

  • Diane McGee  On March 10, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Reblogged this on mcgeecreative and commented:
    Grammarian catnip.

  • Steve Dunham  On April 4, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Good post. I gave it a shout-out on my own Editor’s Companion blog (https://editorscompanion.wordpress.com/).

  • tragicfogey  On April 4, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Brought up to prescriptive rules that stated no comma before ‘and’ I now edit regularly for OUP and have grown fond of their special little comma! It does no harm and often clarifies.

  • bigplansdk  On April 16, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Great article, as usual. My own solution, slightly wishy-washy, is to use the Oxford comma in writing and none at all in speech.

  • Lyagushka (Meirav)  On May 1, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Meirav's Soapbox and commented:
    Yes! exactly.

    The Oxford comma is sometimes extremely useful. Use it when it’s useful, but remember: the goal is good, clear, unambiguous communication. If it helps, use it. If it hinders, don’t. (and this post gives some excellent examples for cases where it helps and ones where it hinders.)

  • newfatherofsg  On May 3, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    The problem here is the convention, for I do not think there is a clear distinction between speaking and writing. The question is are we writing or writing what we speak ? Since there is a requirement for portation due to the time delay between when its written and when its read as against being heard instantly when spoken, it is still a challenge to record voice modulation while scripting. Comma, full stop, apostrophes etc. evolved to alter the way a reader reads. The ‘and’ is just a convention of speech, and redundant, especially in a list as any reader can understand that a list has ended with a full stop. So its all a how we program the readers.

    [ so I used speech, and redundant above ….. lol]

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