Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Oxford Comma

Fine, I admit it. The main reason I love the Oxford as much as I do is because I feel strangely indebted to it. You see, the Oxford comma gave me a chance to show off in front of three copy editors from the local newspaper at the journalism conference I attended in the fall. Now, if we were to analyze the situation, I am indebted to Lynne Truss and her Eats, Shoots and Leaves, for educating me on the name of the misunderstood and grossly underused Oxford comma.

If you, like the hapless woman who asked the question at this particular session, have little to no clue what the Oxford comma is, let me educate you (as I did with the hapless woman. However, after I offered my eloquent explanation, she retained the vapid, clueless look on her hapless face. I know this will not be the case with you, lovely reader).

The Oxford comma is the little comma you would place before "and" or "or" when listing a series of items.

I like to eat peaches, pears, oranges, apples, and bananas.
(As opposed to: I like to eat peaches, pears, oranges, apples and bananas.)

Sadly, this very helpful little comma is considered by some scholars to be optional, and with grammar going the way of the dodo even when it is not optional, my Oxford comma is quickly becoming obsolete.

The fact that the Associated Press had taken a stand against the poor Oxford comma does not help its case at all, either.

I like the Oxford comma. I find it helpful. Necessary. Do I only enjoy apples and bananas when they are mixed together? Or do I enjoy them separately? Am I treating the apples and bananas as one fruit, or do I consider each fruit to be its own, completely separate entity?

You see, sometimes when you join two items with "and" the items are two of a pair, and count as one item in the series.

I bought three flavors of ice-cream: strawberry, peaches and cream, and vanilla.

When we omit the Oxford comma, it is unclear whether the two items being joined by "and" are two items in a pair, being joined by "and," or if they happen to be just the last two items in the series. Yes, when I get to the end of the sentence I will know, but the same can be said for the information given by most other punctuation marks, can't it? I don't want to wait until the end of the sentence to find out; like Veruca Salt, I want it now! If we made the lovely Oxford comma standard, we'd always know if the "and" were joining a pair, or merely bringing us to the end of the series.

Few people stop to ponder these issues the way I do. But then again, few people bother with minor details such as apostrophes, subject pronouns v. object pronouns, or pronoun-antecedent agreement the way I do, either. That does not mean they are right.

I am but a lone voice in a world which communicates through text messages. Even journalistic authorities are against me, but I vow to continue my mission to support the Oxford comma and give it the respect, praise, and admiration it deserves.


  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly in your love of the Oxofrd comma. I, too, can be a bit of a grammar freak and find the Oxford comma to be an essential element in listing items.

    One of my professors in undergrad told me that he had heard of a will disputed over this very issue. The will read something along the lines of, "My assets shall be divided equally among my children: Mark, Jennifer, Jeffrey and Monica.

    Mark and Jennifer argued that since there was not a comma between Jeffrey and Monica's names, they should be counted as one entity. Thus, their father's assets would be divided three ways, rather than four, with Jeffrey and Monica splitting 1/3 of the inheritance. According to my professor, a judge agreed and Mark and Jennifer got their way!

    And people say grammar doesn't matter!

  2. I remember being taught in high school that that comma was indeed optional. I almost always use it, though. But I've been told I might be addicted to commas and use them too frequently. I can't help it, if I feel a pause or break in the sentence I put in a comma.

  3. I'm all for the preservation of necessary grammar (its, it's, there, their, they're, etc)...and I hate texting...but I'm going to write "peaches 'n cream" in good conscience. Hate me, if you will. :-)

  4. I was taught that it was called a serial comma, and was indeed optional. I happen to like it, too.

    Maybe I like it for its asthetics - the poor little 'and' looks naked without it!