Tips from the Editor – Oxford Comma Wars

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By Kelly Laycockeditor1a

“I don’t see how you can write anything of value if you don’t offend someone.“

― Marvin Harris (1927–2001), American Anthropologist

We are such suckers for controversy. Is it our frustration at the lack of control over others’ freedom of thought that comes bubbling to the surface whenever we hear something that doesn’t fit into our own personal black-and-white idea of the world? Why do we have such intense feelings about often arbitrary ideas? Is it that someone else’s opinion somehow offends our sense of self? I’m at a loss to explain it, but I do know that the so-called Oxford comma is one such debate that gets the blood boiling!   

The serial comma, often referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma because of its inclusion in these two respected style guides, is the comma that falls before the and or or in a list or series of items. A wonderful blog post for The Economist entitled “Oxford comma, still with us” does a wonderful job of explaining the debate and offering up an opinion, using this common example:

red, white and blue à no Oxford comma
red, white, and blue à Oxford comma

According to Wikipedia (which shows an excellent list of the preferences of some major publishers and presses in this ongoing war):

“… This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.”[5] It is used less often in British English,[6] but some British style guides require it, including the Oxford University Press style manual.[7] Some, including Fowler’s Modern English Usage, use it only where necessary to avoid ambiguity.[8]

Proponents of the Oxford comma use the ambiguity argument with zeal, often citing examples of compound nouns where the omission of the comma creates a hiccup in the reader’s experience:

My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast. Incorrect
My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs, and toast. Oxford comma

The serial comma, they say, clarifies the compound noun bacon and eggs and avoid a strange-looking list with too many ands. But what other options do we have? There are lots!

My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon, eggs and toast. No Oxford comma
My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon, eggs, and toast. Oxford comma
My usual breakfast is bacon and eggs, coffee and toast. No Oxford comma
My usual breakfast is bacon and eggs, coffee, and toast. Oxford comma

All are correct, punctuationally (I know this is not a word – yet), but the debate rages over which one is more correct. Hmm…?

The comma is intended to provide clarity and avoid confusion, not create more of it! We should always have our readers at the forefront of our mind, and it is certainly preferable that our intended meaning is clear. And I agree, in many cases the Oxford comma does a good job of this. Take the following sentence, for example:

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.*

In this case, we have two strippers named JFK and Stalin. If we inserted the serial comma, we would understand that we invited strippers, plus JFK, plus Stalin. (Either way, it sounds like some party!) But the serial comma does little to clear up the ambiguity in the following instance:

We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.

Are there three invitees or is it just Stalin and a stripper named JFK? In this case, the ambiguity remains and the only solution would be a rewrite. So this comma that people say clarifies the meaning of everything can be just as guilty of causing ambiguity!

What’s worse, strict use of the rule lends itself to the misuse of the comma in other situations.

The judge called a recess, and the jury left the courtroom to deliberate. Correct
The jury deliberated for an hour, and returned to the courtroom to read their decision. Incorrect

The first sentence is a compound sentence, where two subjects are joined by a comma and the coordinating conjunction and. The second sentence is a simple sentence with a compound predicate (two verbs being used by the same subject), and the comma before the and is incorrect. Unfortunately, a comma is often mistakenly placed here for the simple reason that we have been trained to insert a comma before every and, partially thanks to the confusion surrounding the serial comma.

How is your blood pressure so far? Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, offers this advice: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

So where do I stand? Well, it’s true that I have never liked the insertion of the comma where the meaning is obvious and clear. To me, that extra comma is a waste of space (much like the double space after a period). What is wrong with “red, white and blue”? I don’t believe adding a comma after white makes it any more understandable, but rather, enforcing an Oxford comma here shows a lack of flexibility regarding content and gives rise to unnecessary rigidity. It makes writers and editors slaves to rules and their exceptions instead of using punctuation as a tool for communication. Not to mention that it shows a lack of respect for the intelligence of your readers.

So, it would seem that I prefer to have a choice! I am not a lover of the Oxford comma, but neither am I a hater, especially when it makes sense to use it. I prefer to use my comma sense. *groan*

And it turns out, I’m not alone. While the University of Oxford Press demands the use of their Oxford comma, the University’s Public Affairs Directorate has decided on their own style guide:

  • use a comma between items in a list
    I ate fish, bread, ice cream and spaghetti.
    I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat

Um, hold on. Where’s their Oxford comma?

  • note that there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and ‘and’/‘or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’.
    He took French, Spanish, and Maths A-levels.
    I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream.
    We studied George III, William and Mary, and Henry XIII.
    She left her money to her parents, Mother Theresa and the pope.

Look at that. They choose to use it where it makes the most sense to do so, and they seem to trust in their readers to be discerning enough to know their intended meaning. Thank you.

So while the war rages on, I’ll quietly choose to live by the wise words of the American band Vampire Weekend**: “Who gives a f@#k about an Oxford Comma?”
________________________________

*Check out his fantastic Infogram showing the Oxford comma in use!

**Vampire Weekend reportedly wrote this song after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. See the video here.

References

G, RL. “Oxford comma, still with us” in The Economist online, June 30, 2011 http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/06/commas

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham Books, 2006)

University of Oxford Press, House Style Guide online http://global.oup.com/uk/academic/authors/AuthorGuidelinesMain/HouseStyle/#lev4

University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate, Style Guide online http://www.ox.ac.uk/public_affairs/services_and_resources/style_guide/punctuation.html

 

 

5 thoughts on “Tips from the Editor – Oxford Comma Wars

    […] usage of the first sentence.  Despite comma usage in law being the subject of no small amount of controversy, the Federal Circuit quickly concluded that the lack of a comma between “otherwise” and […]

    Like

    ken11fox said:
    April 16, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    A new development – http://m.bizjournals.com/triad/blog/morning-edition/2015/04/n-c-court-awsuit-turns-on-use-of-oxford-comma.html – the writer says the lesson is “in a case involving a written contract, every mark of punctuation matters” – but why would you draft a contract that depends on a judge arriving at the correct interpretation of a comma? It’s like shooting the puck only hard enough so it lands on the goal line & needs to be reviewed by video – put the blood thing in the back of the net! Also, there are more than two ways to interpret that ugly string of legalese – it’s not all about the comma.

    Like

    nickybull said:
    January 3, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Couldn’t ambiguity in the ‘stripper’ sentence be removed by simply using dashes instead? Completely clear what is meant if written: We invited the stripper – JFK – and Stalin.

    Like

    Morelle said:
    October 30, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Shouldn’t the stripper example say, “we invited the stripper JFK and Stalin?” There’s not supposed to be commas enclosing the stripper’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

      kjleditorial said:
      October 30, 2014 at 9:03 am

      Hi Morelle, Thanks for your interest in our blog! Commas are the trickiest of the punctuation, and I understand why you are asking about it! We really have to understand what we are trying to say, and then use the proper punctuation to say it. That’s why the Oxford comma can cause some real problems, as well as clearing up others. (Hence the controversy!)

      In this case, the comma question turns into a semantic one, and the we have to ask if naming the stripper is restrictive or nonrestrictive. A restrictive reading of the sentence would be that JFK is the only stripper and therefore restricts the meaning of the sentence (no commas), as you are suggesting. I think the meaning is quite understandable, so my answer is yes, this is one possibility. However, a nonrestrictive reading would imply that there are more strippers to choose from, requiring us to specify with the appositive addition of the name in commas. So for this example, I prefer the use of commas to specify that JFK is the specific stripper we invited (since we were talking about other strippers earlier). That being said, for real clarity I would rewrite: We invited Stalin and the stripper, JFK.

      Of course, the original stripper example is just a way to show that the Oxford comma doesn’t necessarily fix our problems of understanding, especially when taken out of context. I am a firm believer that context clarifies most things, but when it doesn’t, we need to be able to use our arsenal of punctuation (or our creative rewriting abilities) for the sake of our readers!

      Like

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