The Oxford Comma: Mad, bad, and dangerous to know

In Punctuation on November 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Oxford Comma just use it

Also known as the serial or the Harvard comma, the tricky little punctuation mark used before a coordinating conjunctive is often a point of contention – albeit good-humouredly – among grammarians and their fellow nitpickers. In Britain, the Oxford comma’s dwindling use is most famously part of the OUP’s in-house style. Indeed, it represents a microcosm of the Cambridge-Oxford relationship, not to mention bickering between the proponents of AP style vs. academic (APA, CBE, Chicago, MLA, MRHA, Harvard), AmE vs. BrE, and those who care less vs. those who stridently assert that they do not. For the most part, it would be wise to heed Lynne Truss’s warning: ‘[t]here 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.’ Its primary function is, broadly speaking, to resolve ambiguity. You could argue, of course, that this is a little too broad, appropriating a definition actually applicable to the whole jungle of punctuative and diacritical marks. To clarify, the Oxford comma is used before the conjunctive immediately preceding the final item in lists of three or more items in order to resolve ambiguity, where without the insertion of the mark two or more items could appear conflated, conjoined, or connected. A more meticulous description of the Oxford comma’s remit is available in Fowler’s Modern English Usage, or any number of similar guides.

It can also be clearly (and undeniably more amusingly) illustrated by example. Here is one of my favourites, taken from The Times:

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.

Here if nowhere else should we be cheering the insertion of an Oxford comma, if only to rinse from our mind’s eye a potentially disconcerting visual. For the sake of the funny side, of course, I’m glad in this instance for the copy-editor’s oversight. More generally, the most often-cited example of misplaced commas gives Lynne Truss’s book its title:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

Generally, the opposing arguments for and against the use of the Oxford comma look like this (lifted from Wikipedia):

Common arguments for consistent use of the serial comma:

  • Use of the comma is consistent with conventional practice.
  • It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better.
  • It can resolve ambiguity.
  • Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list.

Common arguments against consistent use of the serial comma:

  • Use of the comma is inconsistent with conventional practice.
  • The comma may introduce ambiguity.
  • It is redundant in a simple list because the and or the or is often meant to serve (by itself) to mark the logical separation between the final two items unless the final two items are not truly separate items but are two parts of a compound single item.
  • Where space is at a premium the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text.

The last alone is probably enough to shake the devotee to the core (or at least enough to make them laugh). The geeky wellspring of the blogosphere is brimming with examples, memes, and arguments both for and against the use of the mark, sheer volume and vitriol indicative of the depth of sentiment the written word brings up from the collective human consciousness: you can buy t-shirts declaring your allegiance; posters with the tagline ‘Don’t be an asshole. Just use it’. Vampire Weekend boast of their ambivalence toward the Oxford comma, Owen Paterson has ‘declared war’ upon it, as the headline runs, as have OUP’s PR team, as has Harry Mount, and (let’s face it) the majority of the rest of the world simply couldn’t care less.

If I’m perfectly honest, I can see both sides. The English language is a lumbering leviathan of the old world; a rickety construction of splintered scaffolding, titanium-bright jargon, patchwork linguistic brickwork and a decorative patina of endlessly-evolving colloquialism. It’s a mutant, a freak; simultaneously a throwback and a changeling. Its quirks are many and beautiful; its punctuation (the mortar, perhaps) of mixed origin, its patterns circuitous, its rulebook a joy to delve into…but try applying so multifarious a set of constraints to that unwieldy creature and something of its splendor is restricted.

The comma on the whole is a rhetorical mark; when I read it, I attend to an implied breath in the text, and thus the most persuasive rule I can put my finger on is that it ‘matches the spoken cadence of the sentence’; that it ‘tells the reader how to hum the tune’ (Lynne Truss again). More precisely, perhaps, it should be used in instances where this is case. Punctuation is a language all its own – a language within a language – and to use it too rigidly is to ignore its potential for poetry. Used naturally, a comma (Oxford or otherwise) can add depth; it can rearrange the notes each word strikes; it can make the text invisible. The Oxford comma specifically, for me, offers completion and cohesion, balance and clarity.

The Oxford comma is helpful, elegant, and easy to use.

The Oxford comma is helpful, elegant and easy to use.

Perhaps there is no real right answer, although I certainly know which of the above examples I prefer. As a poetry editor – indeed, as a poet – perhaps I am more susceptible to the influence of punctuation on a piece of writing, and the particular music and lilt which it plucks from the words. That run of five words at the end of the second example strikes the editorial inner ear differently against what I perceive as the balance and harmony of the first, but I accept the subjectivity of the linguistic sensibility. I concede absolutely to the Oxford comma’s detractors in the case of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘, illustrating just how malleable and pliant the ‘rules’ are. How unfathomably different that last stanza would be if it included the Oxford comma…

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Punctuation shouldn’t be utterly mechanical. By this I mean that it shouldn’t force the words to change. Instead, it should simply support them. It should prop the text at its many corners and pull it taut, lifting the whole silken thing upwards, and holding it toward the light.

H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) (Oxford: OUP, 2009) p. 566

Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, from The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery  Latham (1923)

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (London: Profile Books, 2003) p.71

  1. Hehe – nice title 🙂

    I also completely agree with your preference for ‘The Oxford comma is helpful, elegant, and easy to use.’ Without the second comma the rhythm and lilt disappears.

    I have a dislike for the concept of ‘correct rules’ for language. We all produce and use language, not only grammarians and philologists. I find my international friends’ ‘broken english’ actually defamiliarises, remakes and opens up the language for me, and often find myself subconsciously mimicking their different ways of structuring sentences. I also find my younger, artist brother’s use of written language to be very expressive. He seems to struggle to write in conventional (e.g. academic) ways, but in an informal setting he invents and strings together a wonderful, spontaneous vernacular that I have often thought of appropriating for use in fiction.

    Despite this, there’s one thing I can’t stand – and that’s other people’s bizarre uses of semi-colons – e.g.: ‘To clarify; the Oxford comma is used before the conjunctive immediately preceding the final item in lists of three or more items in order to resolve ambiguity.’ I don’t even know if it’s technically ok, but to me it seems awful. It has to be a comma or a colon. What’s with this bizarre tick clinging to your sentence?

    Anyway, that aside, keep up the good work 🙂 x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: