Monday, February 6, 2012

The Oxford comma: A dissent

Recently, several of my grammar-obsessed Facebook friends have shared humorous posts (like the one at right) about the Oxford comma. They tout this special comma as a tool any smart, literate person should use.

And yet I am not convinced. This is partly because I just wasn't raised that way. Typically, newspapers use Associated Press style, which counsels us not to use that final comma unless it's needed to avoid ambiguity.

What, you ask, is the Oxford comma? It's a comma used before a conjunction when three or more items are listed in a series. In the phrase "Tom, Dick, and Harry," it's the comma following "Dick."

Advocates for the final comma, also called the "serial comma," argue that it can be all that stands between between clarity and ambiguity. They love to offer examples of the craziness that ensues when we don't use it. My favorite is this book dedication: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Two thoughts come to mind, here. First, how weird is it that an author would dedicate a book to Ayn Rand and God? Because Rand was an atheist.

The other thought is this: There's an easy way to fix the problem, and you don't need an extra comma. Just avoid placing the plural noun first in the series. To Ayn Rand, my parents and God. Or: To Ayn Rand, God and my parents.

Ta-da. Problem solved. But it's still a weird book dedication.

If I've failed to grasp something about the necessity of the Oxford comma, feel free to let me know. But my other problem with this whole comma dust-up is that it shifts attention from far more important issues. Among them: the raging epidemic of apostrophe misuse.


Anonymous said...

The Oxford comma is best because it follows the rule of thumb taught in elementary schools - if there is a pause in the sentence, mark it with a comma.

Not to mention that if you don't use it, it appears that the list consists of a single item and a double item.

Ex: "We had corn, beans and rice for dinner" means that the beans and rice were the same dish, whereas "We had corn, beans, and rice for dinner" means they were served separately.

Why rely on context when using the Oxford comma removes all ambiguity and always works?

Carin Siegfried said...

while yes, you can adjust sentences to work around the ambiguity, that works best in short-format writing like journalism. Whereas in book-length works, scrutinizing every sentence with any multiple for possible confusion is exhausting, and inevitably something would be missed. Therefore for books, where also length isn't an issue, it's best to just always use the serial (or Oxford) comma to ensure clarity at all times.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the poor editing in the CO lately? Any tool (be it Oxford comma) that adds to clarity is welcome!

Pam Kelley said...

These are good points. Thanks, all. I may be convinced, though as grammar atrocities go, I still think apostrophe misuse is a bigger problem.