A Quick Grammar-ly Rant: In Defense of the Oxford Comma

Apparently the serial comma is now considered an archaic form of punctuation.

I have to say I disagree. Very strongly.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is defined by Wikipedia as “the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items.”

There are several examples listed in the Wikipedia article, but I think most people who read will be familiar with the situations in which a serial comma is used.

Example: I bought three books, two pencils, and a pen.

Now according to those who regard the serial comma as outdated, that sentence should be punctuated thus:

I bought three books, two pencils and a pen.

It may look odd, but that example in and of itself isn’t a bad sentence, nor is the meaning impossible to figure out. However take a look at this sentence- based off some examples in the Wikipedia article, for those who have an aversion to links.

Example: The train carried only a few passengers: a soldier, butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

You have to think for a bit about whether or not the baker is also a candlestick maker or whether the candlestick maker refers to someone else entirely. Now I’m not saying that’s the best example, as it could clearly use revision to make its meaning more clear. However it does illustrate the problem of omitting the comma at the end of a sentence.

The most prominent arguments I’ve seen against the serial come from journalists, who don’t use it because of column space requirements, and those who argue that in other languages the serial comma is incorrect.

Now as a journalism major, I understand why the serial comma is omitted in that kind of writing. I do feel that this practice is one that should be reconsidered with the rise of online media, where physical space on paper is no longer as much of an issue as it has been in the past. But I do comprehend the reasoning behind leaving it out.

The argument that other languages list the serial comma as incorrect, however, is frankly ridiculous.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that English is somehow superior when I say that this argument shouldn’t affect the serial comma. What I’m saying is that writers who are writing in the English language should adhere to the conventions of that language. If a work is being translated, the differences in grammar and structure will ideally be fixed, including any comma seen as unnecessary.

So why make English grammar any more confusing than it already is by throwing in standards of other tongues? That seems rather counterproductive to good communication. American readers especially are trained to see the comma as an indication of separation in a list, and when that separation isn’t there, they’ll assume the last two items in the list are a unit in some way. In short, leaving off the comma at the end of the list makes the information of that list more imprecise. And I think in a time where language is becoming increasingly important, given the flood of online writing and news in our age, we should take care to be precise as possible in writing. I’m not saying that civilization will collapse if the serial comma is neglected, but I do think communication will suffer a bit. I don’t like the thought of that happening; the rise of texting and email has already slackened our standards of writing at an alarming rate. Why add another pebble to the avalanche?

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11 thoughts on “A Quick Grammar-ly Rant: In Defense of the Oxford Comma

  1. Hmmm, interesting stuff actually. I had someone help me with proofreading a while ago, and they gave me some useful info about the use of commas. It helped things ‘click’, and your candlestick example has as well.

    Thanks!

    • Glad to hear it! And yeah, commas can be tricky. It’s especially frustrating when I’m trying to write articles for journalism, since my overwhelming instinct on seeing no serial comma is to insert one, rather than recognize it as the style convention of the field I’m writing in.

  2. With more and more people reading news on devices with smaller and smaller screens, the need to conserve space is still with us. The Associated Press eschews the serial comma, unless it is necessary to avoid confusion. Unfortunately with fewer editors to emend a journalist’s words before they are published, that leaves the decision of when or if to use the comma up to journalists. And I don’t think they are known for their knowledge of grammar or punctuation. The only sure-fire solution is to require the serial comma and take all judgment out of the issue.

    • This is true, but I think that the space conservation doesn’t come from the reasons as before, since printing ink and paper space meant higher costs for papers, and commas would contribute to that. Since most of online and device revenue would come from other sources, it doesn’t need to affect the actual punctuation in the story. For that reason, I really wish we could just adopt the serial comma as standard, since as you said, there’s not enough enforcement of the issue, which only serves to muddy it up.

  3. I remember one of my old university professors constantly correcting me when I used this style of punctuation and it drove me up the wall! Your examples clearly show how its uses can make subtle differences in the sentences meaning, but it can also really chance the pacing and rhythm of a sentence as well!

    • Yeah, I got told it was outdated by one of my professors, hence this post. I get why it’s not used in journalism, but I think that that’s a far cry from it being an ‘archaic form of punctuation;’ from everything I can find, it appears to be alive and well.

      • I know I, for one, will never let anyone talk me out of an Oxford comma again!

        (I think commas, in general, are going out of fashion. I sometimes like to read things from the 1800’s, and commas abounded then. Not so much these days. Personally, I prefer to have them than not. Of course, I was also a history major and I do medieval re-enacting on the weekends; I’m not exactly the sort to be fashionable.)

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