Language

Keep Comma and Carry On

Who cares about an Oxford comma? We do

Word Nerd

In the song “Oxford Comma,” the band Vampire Weekend asks, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” And the answer is: a perhaps weirdly high number of people. Enthusiasts make and buy comma-sporting T-shirts, start Twitter accounts, and circulate memes. More than one person has told me—unprompted and apropos of nothing—“I’m so glad The Walrus uses the Oxford comma.”

There is no universal rule demanding the use of the Oxford (or serial) comma—it’s rather a question of style. Some publishers would like you to add a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more terms (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”), while others ask that you avoid doing so (“mad, bad and dangerous to know”).

Because of its name—and a vague sense that Americans would be more likely to “declutter” texts by eliminating punctuation whenever possible—I had always assumed it was favoured by the Brits. But it’s actually far more common in North America: it takes its name from Oxford University Press because that was one of the few publishers in the UK to endorse it. Still, even in North America, approaches vary. It turns up in literary and scholarly writing but is generally nowhere to be found in newspapers (those commas take up valuable space, it seems).

Personally, I’ve always liked it—in part because its name conjured visions of dreaming spires and of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Sayers and Evelyn Waugh strolling through quads (probably not together), quipping and then adding commas in front of coordinating conjunctions in lists of three or more terms. But there are, of course, people who would like to see it banished, who view it as fussy and redundant. The coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) already creates separation between the final two items in a list, they argue. If ambiguity results, a comma can always be added in those cases.

I have a couple of issues with this “use only as needed” philosophy. Even the best and most attentive writers and editors may be so familiar with a sentence, so aware of its intended meaning, that they become blind to any inadvertent ambiguities. If one simply adds the Oxford comma as a matter of course, there is no need to consider each and every list-containing sentence and each and every possible misreading of said list-containing sentence. And, oh, the possible misreadings.

Two examples are regularly presented to prove the dangers of doing without the Oxford comma:

  • “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” (likely apocryphal, alas)
  • “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” (the product of a vivid imagination, rendered in cartoon form here)

Without the Oxford comma, we’ve got an Objectivist Immaculate Conception, and JFK and Stalin as strippers. The addition of one modest little mark in each sentence makes it clear that we’re instead dealing with (a) an author who feels a debt of gratitude to her parents, God, and the author of The Fountainhead, and (b) a get-together with some unusual guests.

But, you may object, these examples were clearly cooked up by the pro-comma lobby—such howlers would never make it through a rigorous editorial process. Well, that brings us to a third cautionary example:

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

Those sentences were not devised for the sole purpose of striking fear in the hearts of copy editors everywhere: they reportedly appeared in the London Times. While it’s true that the addition of an Oxford comma would still have permitted a misreading (Mandela as an 800-year-old demigod), it’s not one that would have leapt to all minds. What does, though, leap to most minds upon encountering the original sentence is that the Times, and possibly also Peter Ustinov, believes Mandela to be an ancient holy personage and a collector of sex toys.

Copy editors enjoy a good laugh as much as the next non-pedantic person. What they do not particularly relish, however, is accidentally inviting a reader to have a good laugh at a writer’s expense. If the Oxford comma can help make it clear that Ayn Rand and God have not procreated, that JFK did not take his clothes off for money, and that Peter Ustinov did not travel by sedan chair to an exceedingly odd meeting with Nelson Mandela, I’m all for it.

Sarah Sweet (@catastrophizer) is the magazine's copy editor.

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