The Red Pen: Comma Chameleon

Perhaps no single keystroke has incited such violence of emotion as the Oxford comma.

grammar

Also called the serial comma, it’s more or less grammatically optional in America—but don’t let our noncommittal adoption of the mark fool you. The Oxford comma has become something of a pop culture icon. It appears on t-shirts, drinking glasses, infant onesies, Tinder bios, bumper stickers, “Team Oxford Comma” bangle bracelets, Billie Eilish lyrics, Twitter hashtags, and even as the subject of a song by American indie rockers Vampire Weekend (the lyrics of which, alas, are a bit too indelicate to be reprinted here—although it’s pretty catchy). It also appeared in that last sentence…did you catch it?

The Oxford comma is the comma that’s used after the penultimate item in a list—specifically, before a coordinating conjunction like and or or. Oxford University Press, perhaps the comma’s most prominent user, gave the serial comma its impressive moniker.

Proponents argue that it clarifies sentence meaning; detractors claim it’s highbrow and takes up unnecessary typographical space.  In most cases, the additional comma doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Consider:

I dated an architect, a painter, and a lawyer.

I dated an architect, a painter and a lawyer.

See? No real variance in meaning.

But once in a great while, the Oxford comma provides a very necessary distinction.

In the most popular example (aside from a notable one involving Stalin and JFK that is yet again a bit unseemly for our audience), you can see the obvious trouble:

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

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

Perhaps your lineage really is that uncanny, but for most of us, the Oxford comma provides a more likely interpretation.

Whether or not the Oxford comma is necessary is a matter of debate. AP (Associated Press) style, which most newspapers observe, disregards it, but APA (American Psychological Association style recommends it. A simple news search on the topic produces such headlines as “Forget what AP style is; use the Oxford comma” and “The Extra Comma in Sentences is Driving Me Crazy,” for example.

What do you think, dear readers? Are your thoughts about the Oxford comma good, bad, or indifferent? (See what I did there?) Comment below!

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Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.

 

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