Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Let's hear it for the Oxford Comma!

I am a big fan of the Oxford Comma (alias the Harvard Comma or Serial Comma).

What's that, you say? You don't know what the Oxford Comma even is? That is okay. I recognize that we can't all be grammar freaks, so I will tell you that the Oxford comma is the comma that is inserted before a conjunction in a list containing three or more items.

For example: I went to the park with my kids, Briar, and Hillary.

See that little comma there after the "Briar"? That comma is important. Do you see what would happen if we removed the comma from this sentence? It would become this:

I went to the park with my kids, Briar and Hillary. And -- poof! -- like that, I've suddenly gone from walking to the park with my two little boys and their two live-in aunts to walking to the park with my two grown female children. How did I get so old so fast?

Or how about this example:

I like the following kinds of pizza: Pepperoni and Cheese, Green Pepper and Olive, Anchovie and Onion, and Canadian Bacon and Pineapple.

This sentence is perfectly clear, but what happens when I remove the final comma? This happens:

I like the following kinds of pizza: Pepperoni and Cheese, Green Pepper and Olive, Anchovie and Onion and Canadian Bacon and Pineapple.

So do I like three kinds of pizza (Pepperoni/Cheese, Green Pepper/Olive, and Anchovie/Onion/Canadian Bacon/Pineapple) or do I like four kinds of pizza (Pepperoni/Cheese, Green Pepper/Olive, Anchovie/Onion, and Canadian Bacon/Pineapple)? Without the Oxford comma firmly holding down the boundaries between pizza toppings, the answer to this question is anyone's guess. And that is a travesty.

I will admit that the oxford comma is not always a necessary component of a clearly understood sentence. The following sentence, for example, is simple enough to understand:

I like to eat, drink and be merry.

However, the Oxford comma creates a more accurate visual representaiton of the way lists sound when spoken aloud: One generally says "I like to eat (pause), drink (pause), and be merry," not "I like to eat (pause), drink and be merry." That would sound foolish.

Hence, the Oxford comma should always be used. It's simple and straightforward, eliminates ambiguity, and creates a more aesthetic sentence structure. Why wouldn't everyone consistently use the Oxford comma?

The unfortunate thing is that, sadly, not everyone sees it that way. People omit the Oxford Comma all the time. In fact, the entire Associated Press has completely turned its back on the Oxford Comma. This is just plain wrong and it needs to be changed, so now that I've explained to you why this is so important, and you are fired up about the essential nature of this very special comma, I'm going to encourage you to write to your local newspaper and beg them to bring back the Oxford comma. One periodical at a time, we can bring clarity and reason back into the press.


Karen said...

I remember being told that the comma before the 'and' was optional... although I love commas, so I always throw it in. However, after your ravishing examples, I have come to realize that the Oxford Comma is NOT optional. It is very important. I will make sure to continue its use. :)

Leslie said...

AMEN, Rachel! I have a very deep, loving relationship with the serial comma (I never knew it was called by those other names!). I feel itchy and dirty when people/publications don't use it.

Scott said...


I'll admit to flirting with Oxford comma omission during my hedonistic college days, but eventually I arrived at the same conclusion. Why risk introducing ambiguity just to skip one insignificant keystroke?

Kathleen said...

If I didn't have ample evidence to the contrary, I would swear you have way too much time on your hands!

Natalya said...

Since your resolution you have become quite prolific.

Kate said...

I have always used it, but noticed that it was becoming popular not to. I think I've toyed with not using it a few times, but I can't remember if I was ever actually able to leave it off. I'll make sure not to forever now though.

Holly said...

I wholeheartedly agree. It's about time someone posted something worth reading on the internet these days! Thanks, Rach.

Seth said...

How does Oxford feel about the excessive use of the "..."? As in... wow... thank you for setting me straight on the whole Oxford comma thing! I had long since abandoned the Oxford comma and was completely oblivious to the ambiguity that I was inflicting on my hapless readers. Now I realize my mistake, want to do better, and hereby resolve to always use the Oxford comma in the future. (Not even sure if if was necessary in that particular case but why take chances??)

Peggy said...

Thanks Rachel, This is my favorite teaching subject, and I am abhorred that the Business Communications Courses at the college level teach this comma as unneccessary!

Jennifer said...

I sent your post to my mom (editor at the INL) and she in turn forwarded it to her co-workers and friends. You are one popular read now....I heard your blog site probably received several hits today from Government workers who instantly fell for the Oxford comma Defender! Way to go!

Rachel said...

The response to this post has delighted me endlessly. I thought everyone would be like, "Grumble Grumble, Stupid English Freak, Grumble Grumble," but I was sorely mistaken. Thanks so much for passing this on, Jenn and Peggy!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...