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.
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…
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.