By Colton Williams
The Oxford comma, named for its use by the Oxford University Press, is a comma placed before a conjunction like ‘or’ or ‘and.’ For example, ‘Monteagle is in Franklin, Marion, and Grundy Counties.’
The comma after ‘Marion’ separates the items in the list into distinct entities. It also forces a pause, which is how one would naturally speak the sentence aloud. In this sentence, though, there wouldn’t be any confusion without the Oxford comma. Saying, ‘Monteagle is in Franklin, Marion and Grundy Counties’ would be appropriate, and grammatically sound, though aesthetically it leaves something to be desired. Why use one comma and then abandon another? Why not just clunkily say, ‘Franklin and Marion and Grundy Counties’?
The real evil in not using the Oxford comma comes when it creates confusion. One oft-cited example of this problem is in a most likely mythical book dedication that reads: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Without the Oxford comma, the sentence reads as if the book is dedicated to one set of people — the author’s parents (who happen to be quite the unlikely pair) — instead of three separate people. With the Oxford comma, the book would be appropriately dedicated to (1) the parents, (2) Ayn Rand, and (3) God. Another example is a news notification that read: “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…” Without the Oxford comma, the top story just got a whole lot more interesting, as it reads as though Obama and Castro are agreeing on their marriage date.
The Oxford comma can also clarify meaning when the items in a list are not single words. For example, from the Oxford Dictionary, ‘These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.” Once again, without the Oxford comma, the sentence would lack clarity. Without the comma, the sentence would read as if the items were available in one black and white option, and one option that was four colors: red and yellow and blue and green.
In my quest to prove the superiority of the Oxford comma, I talked Dr. Virginia Craghill (C’ 82), who said, “Well you have a lot of memes that explain the misunderstandings that can occur if you don’t use the Oxford comma. I’m trying to think of one of the examples… Stalin, Kennedy, and prostitutes?” Dr. Craighill was referring to a meme that says, ‘We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin’ vs. ‘We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.’ The second of which would likely not be the party you’re looking for.
Dr. Craighill went on, “There can be gross misunderstandings. There was a case recently where I believe a company got sued because they somehow didn’t have the Oxford comma on their directions for a van driver, so the driver took the van somewhere it wasn’t supposed to go. So it can cause financial harm, it can cause character assassination, it can be very serious. I think it [Oxford comma] is just necessary for clarity, and in writing, punctuation is all about clarity.”
Dr. John Gatta, William B. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, also had some thoughts on the importance of the Oxford comma for clarity. “I believe punctuation is to verbal script what rest marks are to music. So each comma marks a voice pause roughly equivalent to a quarter note rest. Musical expression that fails to observe the necessary pauses, as indicated by rest marks in the script, will never come out sounding quite right — or as intended by the composer. Properly voiced articulation of items in a series likewise demands, I think, use of the Oxford comma.”
Dr. Gatta also said that although the British don’t use the serial comma as frequently, many of the great British actors will use the pause implicitly in performance, suggesting that though it is not explicitly written, it is a more natural speech pattern.
In an email to the English faculty, Dr. Craighill and I searched for a comma-denier, even offering anonymity to those who may hold the dissenting viewpoint. None came forward, which I can only assume as a sign that our wonderful English department truly earned their Ph.D.’s.
To conclude, the serial comma placed after ‘and’ eliminates any possible confusion in almost any situation. You would do better to always use the Oxford comma than to never use it. This way, you can avoid Obama/Castro matrimonies, an Ayn Rand/God parental set, and a stripping Joseph Stalin. Note the Oxford comma.
As a writer of fiction, when my editor calmly and carefully led me to the Oxford Comma, it took our interaction on two novels for me to surrender.
Then something else happened. I began to use more commas, for the same reason cited above: the sound of the prose in my ear when read with meaning and sonority.
I face the “voracious reader” all the time. While I am not overly effusive, I have been told many times they resent having to slow down for a challenging word, and nearly enraged by commas, semi-colons and parenthetical dashes.
The voracious reader is not in it for the prose, for the experience of language, for reflection. They only wish to get to each station in the “Save the Cat” bullet train.
This does not stop me. Thank you, Lorelei, and Oxford.
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