Who Gives a Darn About an Oxford Comma?

30 Jan

I have to tell you something: people who love grammar are not cool.  Now, you’re probably thinking, “Come on. Tell me something I don’t know.”  Well, fine.  I will: those new commercials promoting baby carrots actually star John Boehner‘s children.

As the carrots.

Because John Boehner is very orange.

So you may think you know just how uncool grammarians are.  But it’s just like that show Diary that used to be on MTV: you think you know, but you have no idea.

For one, we actually refer to ourselves as grammarians. Yes! We do!  That is a real word that real people actually use.  It’s a badge of honor, a means of introduction.  For example, I might walk up to you, extend my hand, and say, “Hello. I am Riane. I am a grammarian.”  And then you would say, “Hello.  It is nice to meet you.  I do not know what that word means but that is because I went on dates in high school.”  And then I would start to defend myself, but you would cut in and say, “Prom with your cousin doesn’t count.”

And for two, we have fights–real, legitimate fights–about things like Oxford commas.

First, a little history.

The Oxford comma has many names: it has been known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, or, less commonly, the series comma.  Why so many names?  Who knows.  Perhaps it’s called a Harvard comma when the sentence is about how much Yale sucks and an Oxford comma when the sentence is about bad teeth.

By definition, the Oxford comma is the comma used immediately before the final coordinating conjunction in a list.  For example, the last comma in the sentence “She had apple bottom jeans, boots with the fur, and the whole club looking at her” is an Oxford comma.  In a sentence like this, or in a simple list, the meaning of the sentence does not change whether the final comma is included or not.  I like apples, peaches, pears, and bananas and I like apples, peaches, pears and bananas are not vastly different from each other.  You might think that since the sentence makes sense with or without the comma, it should be up to the writer to decide whether or not to include it.

Not so fast.  You’ve forgotten that this is one of the great debates of our time!   It ranks up there with paper vs. plastic, Mac vs. PC, and Mel Gibson vs. keeping quiet and not being offensive.

In one camp, we have APA, MLA, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the AMA, all championing the Oxford comma.  Whenever there is a list, they say, the Oxford comma should be included.  Their argument is that it creates consistency and clarity.  If you’re in a discipline that uses one of these manuals, then, when in doubt, put the comma in.

But in the other camp, The New York Times, The Economist, The AP Stylebook, and virtually all of Europe claim that the Oxford comma is clunky and obsolete.  Their stance is that, in general, the final comma before and, or, or nor is an antiquated, unnecessary waste of space and should be left out.  (And I do realize that I just used an Oxford comma in a sentence about how some people believe you shouldn’t use Oxford commas.  That, Alanis, is ironic.)

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.  Like I said, in some simple lists, the meaning is unaffected by whether or not an Oxford comma is used.  It’s best to go with the style of your discipline–or the preference of your professor–in cases like that.  But sometimes, the inclusion or exclusion of the final comma does change the sentence’s meaning, and that’s where things get tricky.

The example used most often here is a misleading book dedication that reads: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. This sentence leaves the Oxford comma out, and the reader is left to understand that the writer’s progenitors were actually Ayn Rand and the Lord Most High.  What does that make the writer?  Some sort of Herculean demigod who champions the free-market?  No one knows, but if Dan Brown caught wind of this, he’d probably be tempted to write a book about it, so to stop that from happening, it’s much better to include the comma.  No matter what stylebook that you’re using, always side with clarity.  To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God just makes a lot more sense.

Ultimately, I would suggest always going with the side of your stylebook or professor unless the meaning of the sentence is compromised.  Always check the last two items in your list: if you’ve left the Oxford comma out, make sure that those last two items haven’t accidentally been weirdly smashed together (think of my parents, Ayn Rand and God) to change the meaning of your sentence.  Great debates aside, sense is what matters here.

And someday, when you’re older and more mature, you can decide for yourself whether you’re for or against Oxford commas.  It’s one of those great milestones of growing up, like losing your first tooth or getting your driver’s license.  Or going to a dance with someone who isn’t your cousin, but personally, I think that one is overrated.


8 Responses to “Who Gives a Darn About an Oxford Comma?”

  1. Bill Miller February 1, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    Actually, I’ve started thinking, “Grammarians are pretty cool!”

  2. facebook February 17, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    i love it

  3. katie February 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    as if!


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