Who Gives a !@#$ About an Oxford Comma?

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” —Lynn Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”

Last Sunday, I was at Las Palapas, my favorite Mexican restaurant. (If you live near Livonia, Michigan, and you haven’t been, go now. It’s that good.) I was skimming through the menu when I came upon “Enchiladas Supremas,” described thusly: “Five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean and cheese.” I was perplexed; the menu claimed five, but I only counted four—until I realized that bean and cheese were separate enchiladas, and whoever wrote the menu had chosen to exclude the Oxford comma.

The Oxford (a.k.a. serial) comma is the comma between a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “for,” “yet,” and “so”) and the final item in a list. In the example above it would look like this: “The restaurant serves five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean, and cheese.” It’s called the “Oxford” comma because it was traditionally used by writers and editors at the Oxford University Press. And it’s considered “stylistic,” which means some people use it while others don’t. Both camps are passionate about their positions.

Proponents of the Oxford comma (like me) believe it provides clarity; those opposed to it believe it unnecessarily clutters up a sentence. I thought we’d take a quick look at some examples each camp points to in order to make its case.

Oxford Comma Enthusiasts
The best way to illustrate why I’m such a staunch advocate of the Oxford comma is through sample sentences. So consider this pair:

  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider, and Catherine Bach.
  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider and Catherine Bach.

In the first instance, I’m taking a photo of my parents with ‘80s “legends” John Schneider and Catherine Bach. In the second, I’m taking a photo of my parents, who happen to be Bo and Daisy Duke. Awkward. (By the way, if I were to be associated with anyone from that show, I’d skip the Dukes altogether and adopt Flash.)

Here’s a similar instance:

  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King, and Slash.
  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King and Slash.

See the problem? Stephen King and Slash are not my best friends (although I’d have no objections to adding them to my inner circle).

Bottom line: I adore the Oxford comma because it organizes words into neat little clusters. You don’t have to question whether you’re getting one burrito with beans and cheese or two separate burritos—one containing only beans and one containing only cheese.

Oxford Comma Opponents
For this group, the argument comes down to overuse and pacing. Consider this quote from the New York Times style guide: “…too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader.”

To which I respond, good. People are moving too quickly these days anyway. If having an extra character forces us to pause and maybe even think about what we’re reading (or, more likely, skimming), I’m all for it.

As for overuse, I can’t argue there. But they’re overused because they’re used incorrectly, either arbitrarily placed into sentences where they don’t belong or enablers of run-on sentences. Take this sentence from a book called “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson: “I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.” No wonder people get sick of the comma. (That book was nominated for a Pulitzer, by the way….)

But before I conclude this encomium on the Oxford comma, I do have to admit that it can, occasionally, be problematic. Take this example from an interview with Joe, one of Plante Moran’s retired partners: “The three most important mentors in my life were my father, Frank Moran, and my high school football coach.” Similar to the Bo and Daisy Duke example, readers could incorrectly assume that Joe’s father was Frank Moran. Including the Oxford comma is misleading. But instead of eliminating it, we simply numerated the list: “…(1) my father, (2) Frank Moran, and (3) my high school football coach.” (My frienditor also notes that we could have simply reordered the list: “…my father, coach, and Frank Moran.” As usual, good point.)

So what do you think? Are you a proponent of, opponent of, or simply indifferent to the Oxford comma? And did you know that Vampire Weekend actually wrote a song about it? They did. Check it out below. (But be warned—the first line contains a pretty distinct F-bomb, so you might not want to play it at work/around kids.)

Word of the Week: Encomium
Song of the Week: “Oxford Comma,” by Vampire Weekend

Comments

  1. Kim Greenspan says

    I guess it’s true that we’re all creatures of habit. I memorized the AP Stylebook in J-school and I haven’t been able to shake it since, Mindy. Therefore, the Oxford comma holds no credibility in my world view. More important, though, is that I am still learning new words from you. Encomium. Nice.

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