Who Cares about the Oxford Comma?
Jan 20, 2014
“Who even cares about the Oxford Comma?” sings Ezra Koenig in the wonderful (clean) version of Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.” It seems a mundane question about a minor point in punctuation; yet, it is a crucial and much debated concern for publishers, linguists, academics, and even the world of social media. Facebooks, Tumblrs, and Twitters have been created to praise and disparage the additional comma at the end of a series. Those publishing through BookLogix will come to find that we are users of the Chicago Manual of Style and, therefore, are advocates of the Oxford comma. The issue seemed to come to a head in June 2011 after The University of Oxford declared that their internal style guide would not advocate the use of their namesake comma—the Oxford University Press, however, continues to support the serial comma. So, what exactly is the Oxford comma? The Oxford or serial comma is a comma following a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor) in a series of three or more terms. For example, “neither Jane, John, nor Derek” as opposed to “neither Jane, John nor Derek.” There are numerous reasons for and against the use of the serial comma, but three of them stand out as being most crucial for those seeking the best way to punctuate effectively.
First, the serial comma conforms to natural intonation. When one is speaking a series of terms that are of equal value there will be an equal pause or break between each term. Those slightly extended pauses gesture to our audience that one item is over and another is beginning and that the items have some equivalency. In writing, the way one acknowledges these slight pauses or breaks is through the comma. Therefore, if one is writing a series of terms, to best match natural intonations, one should use a comma between the terms.
Second, the serial comma resolves ambiguity. When constructing a list, an important question needs to be: are these terms unique from each other? If they are, they need to be properly separated. Let us consider a sentence without the serial comma: “My favorite muffins are blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.” By ignoring the serial comma it is unclear what the items are—their uniqueness is blurred and the meaning of the sentence confused. Are the final two items “peanut butter” and “chocolate chip and coconut” OR “peanut butter and chocolate chip” and “coconut”? Consider this same sentence with a serial comma: “My favorite muffins are blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip, and coconut.” This example clearly separates the three items through the additional comma. Equal weight and space has been given to each item, confusion has been avoided, and the natural flow of speech preserved.
Third, the serial comma conforms to other means of listing. If one is writing lengthy and complicated lists, no matter the style guide, it will be necessary to use semicolons. For example: “Tom’s friends celebrated his birthday by giving him tickets to the bizarre, acrobatic wonders of Cirque de Soleil; Stephen Sondheim’s lost masterpiece, Frogs; and his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers.” In this example, the list was not just single terms, but descriptive and lengthy items that used commas within the individual descriptions. To only use commas to separate the items would create immense confusion. The final semicolon is a necessity to give clarity and equivalence amongst the items. This form of punctuation with complex listings is required amongst all major style guides; therefore, Chicago and others advocate for the serial comma to create greater consistency amongst listing punctuation rules. The logic being: if one type of list needs equal punctuation breaks, then all should.
This is obviously only one side of this debate and there are problems the Oxford comma can present when writing. However, the benefits it provides are immense and far outweigh any concerns, especially for those that are wanting to write dialogue with a more authentic flow or those drawing on fields such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, or science that require complicated series of issues. I hope that despite its seemingly minor position you will see the true heft and value of the Oxford Comma and use it to create effective and clear writing.