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.
— Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
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Introduction: The debate over the Oxford Comma is complicated and I find both sides lack any real, solid points. Just as both sides think their way is more clear, both are wrong. Careful sentence construction is the only way to overcome the limitations of either approach.
The Oxford Comma is when you put a comma before the words both the world ‘and’ as well as ‘or’ in a list of three or more items. Here is a biased 80 second video that explains it:
Summary: Some style guides say you should use it, some say you should not. Most people say you should at least be consistent in any document or post you make. If clarity is the goal, you need to know the common pitfalls of both approaches, and rewrite you sentences to be absolutely clear.
I oppose the Oxford Comma as my personal preference. This is because I like the minimalism of fewer commas. I also feel it has a more modern everyday look. Though I think avoiding the Oxford Comma is good for academia as well.
Both Approaches Have Problems
Advocates of the Oxford Comma claim it remove ambiguity. And they will show you cherry-picked examples that illustrate their point. Those against it can do the same in the opposite direction. Consider the two examples below:
With the Oxford Comma: “They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.”
Using the Oxford Comma we cannot tell if Betty is a maid (two people) or if Betty came with a maid and a cook (three people). However, we are not much better off without the Oxford Comma:
Without the Oxford Comma: “They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.”
In this case people might think Betty was a maid and a cook, or that Betty came with both a maid and a cook.
Use careful sentence construction
The Wikipedial article on the serial comma goes to great length to show how clear writing—and not punctuation!—can solve the problem:
- 1 person
- They went to Oregon with Betty, who was a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, both a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, their maid and cook.
- 2 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty (a maid) and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty—a maid—and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and with a cook.
- They went to Oregon with the maid Betty and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a cook and Betty, a maid.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid; and a cook.
- 3 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty, as well as a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty and a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, one maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a maid, a cook, and Betty.
- They went with Betty to Oregon with a maid and a cook.
This next part is a little technical. But to those who followed along perfect and are saying ‘yes, but…’ here are the technical places you get in trouble with punctuation:
- The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if both y and y and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
- x and y and z is unambiguous if x and y and y and z cannot both be grouped.
A Quick Joke
As an excersice and English teacher asked students to properly punctuate the sentence, “a woman without her man is nothing.”
The more traditionally minded student handed in the sentence, “a woman, without her man, is nothing.”
However, a few student wrote in an answer with the opposite meaning! “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
A Remaining Question
There is one thing that confused me about the otherwise excellent Wikipedia entry. In my naivety, I believe that the Oxford Comma means commas everywhere. So the following example of the Oxford Comma rather confuses me since it is missing the comma before the word and:
My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast.
It is unclear whether the eggs are being grouped with the bacon or the toast. Adding a serial comma removes this ambiguity.
If we insert a single comma after eggs, it makes it clear that bacon and eggs are grouped together: “My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs, and toast.” Three things. However, this seems like it not following the Oxford Comma, but it’s also not avoiding it. It’s doing both in point of fact. This hybrid model it’s extra clear, but flies in the face of either ideology. And to me, communication is about clarity. So that’s good.
However, I think they are implying that this is the Oxford Comma. If so I clearly misunderstand something out of my ignorance. Either that, or I’m reading too much into the the wording.
I plan to post this to the grammar Stack Exchange site sometime soon.
Further Reading & Sources
- Serial comma at Wikipedia is an excellent resource and the one I used heavily for the discussion in this page.
- The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars at Mental Floss gives a brief overview and several interesting examples.
- The Oxford comma: Decried, defended and debated info graphic has some interesting info, especially that the Oxford Comma is not commonly used in Canada, the US or even the UK, where Oxford is!
- Origin of the Oxford comma is a blog post about how the author went about researching who created the Oxford Comma, and when. My summary: before the 1900s people sometimes but a comma after every item in a list, but some didn’t. F. H. Collins standardized the practice in Oxford in 1905 when he published Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary. The term ‘Oxford Comma’ seem to date only back to the 1970s.
Below are some of the sources I used when researching this, and some I found and stuck here but haven’t checked if they are useful, yet. They may result in this page being drastically changed.
The serial, Harvard, or Oxford comma