You’ll Pry the Oxford Comma From my Cold, Dead Hands

The subject of the Oxford comma reared its head again, for me and many others recently, when Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com wrote an article about it at the end of June: Don’t kill the Oxford comma! You can probably guess which side of the debate Mary Elizabeth comes down on. There is a fierce fight over this comma in editorial circles, and I stand firmly with Ms. Williams on this one.

In fact, I had written about this once before, on another Shiny Ideas blog, so I’ll repeat that post again here.

I have to say that I’m very happy when I read this post, from Tomato Nation, about why we need the Oxford Comma.

That’s the comma which, in a long list of things, either comes before the second last thing or — in some people’s view — does not get inserted there, so that the last two things in the list don’t have a comma between them.

An example of such a list would be, say, a list of colours: red, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The Oxford Comma is the one between indigo and violet. Those who are opposed to this usage would do the list like this: red, orange, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The fight between the pro- and anti-Oxford camps has been long and sometimes full of rage. The trend these days seems to be to remove the comma, so if I’m editing in a style that goes that way, I try to comply. I suspect this goes with the current trend to try to remove as many commas as possible while retaining the sense of the sentence.

But if left on my own (or in my own writing), I will always use the Oxford Comma, because as far as I’m concerned, it fulfills the requirement of good editing and writing: it makes things unambiguous and clear.

Take a list of pairs of things. Here’s how such a list would look without the Oxford comma:

A cup and saucer, knife and fork, cream and sugar and bowl and platter.

I suppose the anti-Oxford people would say that it’s still clear that “bowl and platter” are one entity, separate from “cream and sugar;” otherwise there wouldn’t be that “and” between them. But there are other sentences, with several things in a list, that are much less clear.

When I was a kid in grade 7, I worked this out for myself, having no idea there was any controversy about it. I decided that I would use a comma after every item prior to the last one, to make it absolutely clear which items were individual entities. I wouldn’t risk anyone confusing the last two items as one thing. It seemed so logical to me that I wasn’t even aware that it could be disputed.

As I said, when I’m editing I follow the style chosen by the writer or, more often, the publisher or organization putting out the document. But whenever I’m allowed to have my own way, I go with the choice that makes things clearer. At least I know I’m not alone.