The Eternal, Heated, No Good Debate Over The Oxford Comma

By Elizabeth Cameron
The Oxford comma. You know the one. That vilified final comma before the “and” in a series of items (though I’m sure Vampire Weekend was just kidding, guys). So what is the point of the serial, or series, comma (lovingly known as the “Oxford” comma due to its place in the house style of the inimitable Oxford University Press)? To maintain consistency, prevent ambiguity, and preserve poetry.
First off, consistency
The style guides that espouse the Oxford comma are all used in fields that require or foster precision, clarity, and even beauty (i.e. the arts and sciences)—for example, the Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association. They use it consistently so that you never have to wonder whether the last two items in the list are meant to be read as a pair or not. The style guides that reject the Oxford comma tend to do so on the grounds of space, because it’s important to get as much content “out there” as quickly as possible (i.e. those used by journalistic publications). If forced to take my pick of schools of thought regarding how information should be presented, I’d go with the former.
It’s also consistent with how we use semicolons in more complicated lists—in those cases, you always insert a final semicolon before the final item. No one argues that, because the point is to prevent ambiguity…
Ambiguity
There are scenarios in which, without the Oxford comma, the level of distinction between the final two items in the list is unclear. For example: “I had bacon, eggs and toast and jelly.” Inserting the comma makes the sentence less annoying, for one thing (“I had bacon, eggs, and toast and jelly”), and also makes it clear that the eggs and toast are not together (nor are the eggs and toast and jelly, heaven forbid). Now, in a world without the Oxford comma, it’s never entirely clear whether the toast and jelly combine to form one delectable item or whether they remain lamentably separate. Or perhaps you prefer your toast bare and your jelly untainted—in which case, an anti-Oxford-comma writer (ahem, a newspaperman) would deny you the opportunity to so clearly but subtly proclaim this preference (a choice The New Yorker would never foist upon you). If it’s that important, he might say, perhaps you should explain it separately? (Ah, but isn’t the point of cutting the Oxford comma to save space?)
And then there are our favorites:
We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.
Without the Oxford comma, there is every possibility that J.F.K. and Stalin are the strippers. (Fortunately, the Internet has provided us with a lovely illustration of this one.)
And:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
The very suggestion of such a union producing offspring should be enough to mandate the Oxford comma.
If you list these examples to a die-hard anti-Oxford-comma writer, they will first of all refuse to be charmed, which is of course curmudgeonly, and then inevitably suggest, smugly, that the issue could be not only resolved but prevented simply by changing the order of the lists to prevent ambiguity—i.e. rewording them to say “We invited J.F.K, Stalin and the strippers,” and “This book is dedicated to God, Ayn Rand and my parents.” Never mind, of course, that the writer may prefer the cadence of the original form, or that the items were listed in order of importance. Purveyors of this solution show themselves to be far less interested in the presentation of a sentence than in its content––which, frankly, is only half of writing.
Poetry
Ah, the other half of writing. The fact is, the order of the items in the list, and the clear division or lack thereof between the final items, may be even more important than the items themselves. Rhetoric, anyone? And the cadence is a large part of what brings us pleasure as readers—or as listeners, because, of course, the Oxford comma also mimics the natural spoken cadence of a list.
Finally, frankly, it looks better. As Mary Norris (query proofreader, or, more aptly, “prose goddess,” at The New Yorker) notes: “It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective. If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.” An artist should be an aesthete. The presentation of your prose should matter to you!
In general, there’s a war between comma lovers and comma haters. Obviously I’m a lover, and I adore this thoughtful and humorous meditation from Mary Norris on the clarifying and poetic uses of the comma: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/holy-writ (If you read through this, I’m sure you’ll get through that.)
By Lee Strubinger
I must be transparent.  For both undergrad and graduate school, I studied journalism. This greatly informs my position on the Oxford Comma argument.  The last time I had a heated argument about the issue was with the very person I’m sharing this post with… We were on our way to the company Christmas party.  Needless to say, I think, no one won the argument (she may disagree).  And no one ever will. But, for the sake of education and argument, here’s why omitting the Oxford comma is better when writing:
AP style is clearer.
Space is money in the newspaper business, and most (if not all) news publications subscribe to the Associated Press Style Guide.  The point of the style guide is to be as clear as possible while also saving as much space as possible—space in the amount of characters used. Sure, when you’re working on your novel space is not an issue.  But as a non-Oxford comma user, I’ve found the lack of extra comma looks far superior and more slick.
It’s a major bone of contention between the journalism community & formal english writers. The AP style rule for commas is simple, “in a simple series, use a comma to separate the elements, but don’t but a comma before the conjunction,” says the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
For example: The American flag is red, white and blue.
As opposed to formal English language: The American flag is red, white, and blue.
My preference for AP style comes from my journalism background, but I find a simple series easier to read with a lack of comma.  There are many cases in the English language where punctuation changes the way we read a sentence, and the missing Oxford comma clues my mind on how to read a sentence, much like how it’s intended to be read… rather than re reading the sentence.  When the extra comma is no longer there, and I stumble upon the work “and” I know that the end of the series is here.
Many of the arguments in favor of the Oxford comma are justified by foolish, unclear sentences like these:  I love my dogs, Jerry Garcia and Jack Kerouac.
Those who argue in favor of the Oxford comma say this sentence makes it seem like my dog’s names are Jerry Garcia and Jack Kerouac. This is silly, because the number one rule of AP style is clarity.
Those who use AP style would argue the sentence can be interpreted better by rearranging the simple series in the first place: I love Jerry Garcia, Jack Kerouac and my dogs.
Whether or not you choose to use the oxford comma, the important thing to remember is to be as clear as possible.  The whole reason we are writing is to entertain/inform the reader, not fool them. This will hardly rest the Oxford comma debate, and why should it?  Maybe it shouldn’t be a debate at all, which makes this post mostly pointless. Regardless, Vampire Weekend settles the debate in the best way possible.  Who gives a….. well, I’ll let Ezra sing it.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW7bB8D_mAY
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