Serial Killer: The Dissing of the Oxford Comma

Meghan Casey
“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

In June, it was discovered that Oxford University had revised its style guide and pulled the plug on the use of the Oxford comma (otherwise known as the serial comma).

They issued the following guidelines:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used—especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:
They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:
The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

Now, to be clear, The Oxford Style Manual, which is governed by the autonomous Oxford University Press and for which the Oxford comma is named, has done no such thing. (Phew.)

What we said

At Brain Traffic (a.k.a. wordnerd central), Oxford University’s decision to drop the serial comma was cause for immediate debate. We had a very civil, yet heated, discussion about our reactions. Here are some choice quotes. (NOTE: You may or may not be able to see my personal biases come through here.)

The yays (i.e., the people who are right)

Melissa Rach: To me, the serial comma is a courtesy. Is it required? No. Is it a nice thing to do for your users? Absolutely. Incidentally, in journalism school, I learned that early newspapers removed the serial comma (and the second space between sentences) to conserve column space. So, it wasn’t about best practices, it was about money and discourteous typesetters. Maybe I will write to Miss Manners for support.

Angie Halama:When I was a copyeditor, the in-house style where I worked did not call for using the Oxford, or serial, comma. But, as the Oxford Style Guide entry on the comma points out, there are still times the serial comma is needed to “assist in the meaning of a sentence” or “help resolve ambiguity.” And these situations can be ambiguous in themselves. I worked with smart writers, so this wasn’t usually a big deal. But for many people, the intricacies of punctuation rules are confusing, frustrating, and ridiculous. That’s why copyeditors exist, but even they have to wade through these complexities. So why not simplify just one thing and make the serial comma the rule? Then everyone can save their energy for more important things, like knowing when to hyphenate a compound modifier. Which I know you’ve been really concerned about. As you should be.

Tenessa Gemelke:My vote? CLARITY.

The serial comma rarely introduces confusion, but it often saves the day with its clear enumeration. For example, consider the following list of options:

Your sandwich choices are turkey, beef, ham, and Cheez Whiz.

The serial comma is essential here. Although wise people know Cheez Whiz tastes best as a singular sandwich ingredient, crazy people might try to eat it with ham. In most uses, the serial comma makes it clear that the final and penultimate items in a list are distinct from each other.

Of course, there are rare instances in which the serial comma causes trouble:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds, and America.

Is this book dedicated to three entities, or am I the secret love child of Burt Reynolds? In either case, it would be clearer to revise:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds and America.

I dedicate this book to my father (Burt Reynolds) and America.

I’m okay with ditching the serial comma when it’s problematic. But nine times out of ten, adding it makes for clearer reading. And that’s why I love it very, very much.

Kristina Halvorson: I like the serial comma the way I like my punctuation outside of the quotation marks (which, by the way, makes me a sympathizer to the Brits and a traitorous American). They delineate; they contextualize. Generally speaking, I prefer extra-strength clarity: the serial comma singles out each item or phrase in your list so there's no confusion about what is grouped with (or attached to) what. Is it more cluttered? Yeah, sure. But it's worth the added clarity and meaning. And you know who agrees with me about commas? SHAKESPEARE, THAT'S WHO.

P.S. Next they're probably going to try to get rid of using ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. WHAT?

Christine Anameier: Damn them!

I like the serial comma because I feel it reduces ambiguity. Emily dislikes it because she feels it adds unneeded complexity. I don’t really care what other people do as long as I can continue to use it. That’s essentially my approach to all the style controversies at BT: live and let live.

Long live the serial comma.

Meghan CaseyWell, I have an online dating profile up on the internets. In it, I write, “I use the serial comma. Get used to it.” So, yeah, you get the picture.

The nays (i.e., the people who are wrong)

Emily Folstad: Finally! Serial comma = unnecessary typographic clutter. Good riddance! Does this mean that Brain Traffic proofreaders will finally stop filling up my documents with that little sucker?

Julie Vollenweider: I’m an informal and impatient gal. If I could write everything in shorthand or abbreviations, I would. Punctuation included. I’m in full support of Oxford University editing the serial comma right on out of the rules. Just wish the Oxford Style Manual would follow suit.

In conclusion

Clearly, the yays have it. According to me. (And, anyway, the Brain Traffic style guide says to use the serial comma. So there.)

But, don’t be glum, naysayers. At least there is an (overplayed) theme song for people who don’t give a **** about the Oxford comma. Take it away, Vampire Weekend …