Against the Oxford Comma

All right, it’s time. Too long have I been silent.

The Oxford comma is overrated.

There. I said it. And you know what, I’m proud that I said it. I acknowledge that there is a chance that I will lose friends over this post, but for fuck sake, if you’re going to unfriend me because of a point of punctuation, you are the fucking problem.

Now, mind you, I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t have its uses, but to blindly throw it about without thinking critically does in fact label the user a pretentious git without sufficient faculties for this business.

The idea of the Oxford comma is that when you are serializing words in a sentence (usually nouns, but I suppose verbs and even adjectives would qualify, too, in some cases), there have to be commas in between all of them, even if there is also a conjunction. Now, standard practice in English only demands that you put a verbal conjunction (e.g. and, or) between the last two; if you say “I was angry and sweaty and nauseated”, that’s a non-standard form of stylised emphasis, not something you would say casually or in a formal context.

The argument for adding a comma even in the presence of a conjunction is ostensibly to avoid misunderstandings based on one of the other uses of the comma: mainly, description. The commas are used to bracket descriptions and enumerations within the sentence by separating them out from the rest of the construction:

“My mother, a renowned linguist, taught me how to speak and write correctly,” or

“The twins, Byron and Shelley, had a terrible time in their English classes.”

In the first example, the phrase “a renowned linguist” is used to give more insight into why the speaker is bringing up his or her mother in this conversation by giving a pertinent description. In the second, the phrase “Byron and Shelley” tells us specifically to which twins we are referring in this context—and possibly why.

Proponents of the Oxford comma argue that if you are serialising words, omitting a comma between the last two even in the presence of a verbal conjunction makes it appear that the comma before the penultimate word in the series is actually used for this alternate purpose of enumeration and/or description. Here are some examples used by Oxfordites in their campaign:

  1. “We invited the strippers, JFK(,) and Stalin.”
  2. “Kill Harry, Hermione(,) and Ron.” (which I am using instead of the more popular “I’m having milk, toast and orange juice” because it makes just slightly more sense)
  3. “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector(,) and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Each of these examples has its own odd quirkiness, linguistically, but the first is the most common and widespread, as well as the one that makes the best case, which is why I will be handling these three in reverse order.

So, to begin with 3:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

The contention from the Oxford camp is that this sentence, sans comma, suggests that the former President of South Africa was both of semi-divine origin and guilty of certain profane proclivities. The idea is, of course, as stated above, that the sole comma creates the impression that it is for descriptive purposes, rather than for serialising.

But this accusation is without merit—not only is Mr. Mandela not (provably, at least to my knowledge) guilty of either of those things, but moreover, this sentence does not and cannot suggest that he is. No one who has not been brainwashed by the Oxford camp would think that.

The reason for this is because repeating the indefinite article (an/a) creates an unmistakable separation between the two entities that come after the comma. If you were trying to suggest that Mr. Mandela was both of those things, the sentence would look like this:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector.”

Now there’s no mistaking it. Once you leave out that indefinite article, you make it quite clear just how twisted your mind is. That is not, however, what the original quote shows; the original quote very clearly delineates three separate “highlights” (which is plural, btw) that will be seen on the subject’s world tour.

Interesting things happen, however, when we do put the Oxford comma where its proponents say it should go:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector, and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Here we really do have a case of ambiguity. You will notice that there are now commas on both sides of “a dildo collector”—this puts it in the same syntactic position as “a renowned linguist” and “Byron and Shelley” in the examples above. So while you may have spared the former South African President the torment of an unnaturally long life-span, you have now unmistakably linked him with certain implements many members of his constituency would no doubt find scandalous.

The second example from the Oxford camp is awkward in a wholly different way and the argument against it bases itself on yet another standard use of commas, which is to mark a form of address, e.g. “Harry, do speak up” or “Pay attention, Mr. Potter!”

The contention here is that if we do not use the Oxford comma, as in

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron,”

we are telling Harry’s two closet friends to kill him (probably under an Imperius Curse, one assumes). Now, though this does not seem likely, we could just as easily use the example:

“Kill Harry, Crabbe and Goyle!”

The problem is that this still sounds quite awkward. I honestly can’t think of any case in which I would be addressing two people and put both of their names at the end of a sentence—at least not in English. If I was (terrifyingly blonde and) trying to command my henchmen to rid me of my nemesis, I would probably say something more like

“Crabbe! Goyle! Kill the Potter boy!”

So I really can’t think of

“Kill Harry, Hermione, and Ron”

as any less ambiguous than

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron.”

But now we get to the crux of the argument: number 1.

I have seen a great many variations on this construction—I would even venture to say that most examples in favor of the Oxford comma follow this precise pattern, which is a series of three nouns, the first of which is plural:

“We invited the rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“I was twerking with the puppies, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence.”

The only reason any of these look ambiguous at all is because of the order in which they are summed up. If we reverse the order:

“I was twerking with Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies,”

“This book is dedicated to Ayn Rand, God and my parents,”

“We invited Washington, Lincoln and the rhinoceri,”

there is no more confusion. Under no circumstances can “Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies” add up to “Miley Cyrus,” who is not nearly cute enough to even compete with that; nor is Ayn Rand composed of any divine aspects (and frankly, if I understand correctly, she would probably resent the association); and no matter how many rhinoceri Lincoln brings with him—hold on, how did Lincoln even get hold of multiple rhinoceri? None of this makes sense, anyway.

The point is, if you reverse the order—which, frankly, makes a lot more sense to me stylistically anyway, most of the time—there is almost never any ambiguity at all.

I did find one example where there is, though: the example given is

“Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

which, of course, makes it seem as though those are the names of his ex-wives. Which is ridiculous, of course, because if he had married those two, we would call them “husbands” as they are obviously men. But if you switch it around:

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

then modern conventions present the risk of thinking that each of these three men married the same two women. However, this is not necessarily a problem that would go away if you added the Oxford comma, e.g.

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

because it is not a problem of punctuation, it is a problem of syntax and word use. And if we actually were trying to say “the two women who were both married to each of these three men,” and we said

“Kris Kristofferson’s, Robert Duvall’s(,) and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

it would sound like they had two wives apiece, and the ambiguity would be compounded. So, really, when it comes down to it, the only thing for it is to rely on tone in speech and context in writing to create this distinction.

And to a certain extent, the same is true for the Oxford comma in most cases. No one in their right mind is going to think that Jennifer Lawrence OR Miley Cyrus are puppies or that Washington and Lincoln are rhinoceri—well, unless you named two rhinoceri “Washington” and “Lincoln”, which I suppose would be valid—or that Ayn Rand and God (who HATE each other, by the way) would ever get close enough to become anyone’s parents. Syntactically, it’s a very specific case where it’s necessary at all and if it is used in other cases, it can create the very ambiguity it professes to combat.

This ambiguity can, however, be fought from the opposite direction, by discouraging the use of commas in these alternative cases. At the end of a sentence, after all, if you want to enumerate, you might as well use a colon, as in

“We brought in the rhinoceri: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,”

or, conversely, a dash, which would give us

“I was twerking with the puppies—Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence,”

which sounds a little clunky, but would serve to enhance the comedy of two puppies having been named after celebrities. Or of two celebrities being referred to as young dogs.

And in the case of enumeration in the middle of a sentence, either bracketing dashes or parentheses can be used:

“To my parents (Ayn Rand and God) I dedicate this book,” or

“The strippers—JFK and Stalin—were invited to the party.”

There are solutions, then, that might actually cure the problem, rather than providing a band-aid for it. Yet there are those in the community at large who have bought into the meme so thoroughly that they have forgotten what the purpose of the Oxford comma was.

I also need to address one specific case that came up recently—and when I say “case”, I mean that literally, as this pertains to a legal matter. The issue in question was the enumeration of the types of activities that don’t qualify for overtime pay, which are, as listed in the contract,

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.”

The part of the sentence that is rendered ambiguous is “packing for shipment or distribution of”, the contention being whether “packing” could refer to “distribution” as well as to “shipment”.

This should have been considered a moot point, however, given the rest of the sentence, because of the way that serialization works. Serialization only functions to begin with because the final conjunction between the last two serialized words gives context to every preceding comma. That means that if “packing for shipment or distribution of” was meant to be a single unit, we wouldn’t know how to interpret the SEVEN separate commas that preceded it. So if they had wanted to set up the sentence that way, they would have to have put an extra “or” before the word “packing”. Unless of course it was a newspaper headline, since those seem to get away with everything.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who told me that the omission of the Oxford comma was a pet peeve of hers, and when I pressed her about it, she not only told me that she wasn’t interested in hearing my arguments, but she didn’t even seem to be current on the actual arguments in favor of her own position. She was just taking stock in the Oxford company to be trendy. In and of itself, this is lame because it cheapens the cause of people who actually know and care about grammar when someone arrives at these conclusions with zeal that can only be described as religious, but when I see people online foaming at the mouth about the Oxford comma, it becomes downright frightening. Blind loyalty to phenomena you do not understand is the opposite of science, and that applies to linguistics and grammar every bit as much as it applies to the natural sciences.

So the next time someone tries to lecture you on “Why you should always use the Oxford comma”, show them this sentence:

“I’ve had about enough of Nick, my dog, and other liars.”

And ask them what the dog’s name is. When they look confused, show them this one:

“I walked into the room and saw Hank, the man who killed my father, and the Sheriff.”

And ask them how much trouble “I” am in. If they see an Oxford comma there, they won’t know that “my dog” is a description of “Nick”, and they’ll think that there are three different men in the scene at the bottom. Then you can laugh at them and their useless, too-specific and ultimately nonsensical examples.

About Polypsyches

I write, regardless of medium or genre, but mostly I manage a complex combined Science-Fiction/Fantasy Universe--in other words, I'm building Geek Heaven. With some other stuff on the side. View all posts by Polypsyches

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