The Oxford Comma; Pet Peeve or Industry Controversy?
Look, we’ve all read articles and seen videos ranting about the Oxford Comma. That silly little extra punctuation mark that differentiates between a list or an inclusive grouping in relational clauses. It’s a simple argument pertaining to the simplification of grammatical structures in the modern English language. And right now you’re thinking, who even cares about this stuff? Apparently, a lot of people, and in truth, I’m not sure why either.
Let’s see if we can break it down.
What Is The Oxford Comma?
Otherwise known as the serial comma because of its usage, this bit of punctuation was designed to help clarify the difference between a list of nouns, or a grouping of nouns and it’s subsequent examples. It is simply a comma after a coordinating conjunction (and/or). In traditional sentence structure (without the use of the serial comma), you would have a comma separating the first few items of a list, but not one after the conjunction. I.E. I need to pick up milk, eggs and butter. With the serial comma, it looks more like; I need to pick up milk, eggs, and butter.
Where Did It Come From?
It seems that even the origin of this unique bit of controversy is, itself, controversial. Most experts can agree that the usage of an added comma before the conjunction was fairly common practice in pre-Guttenberg literature. Even if that’s the case, we can’t very well call it a ‘rule’ since Middle English conventions on grammar were somewhat loose, (despite Plantagenet attempts to the contrary).
Whatever the case, the use of the serial comma clearly stopped once the printing press was in play, to avoid wasting typographical space. In a way, this makes sense, but we’re talking about grammar here, not typography. Are the rules of English grammar really so lackadaisical that they can bend and form to the whims of technology?
Language always has been and always will be subject to humanity. It is a living thing after all, as mutable and apt to change as the life it strives to describe. The Oxford Comma is no different in this way. Whatever rules or structures were in place before 1440, Guttenberg’s shinny new toy changed them. It is unclear at what point grammarians made the switch back to the use of the serial comma, however.
There are references to it in various academic writings as early as the 1840s - mainly attributed to famed sociologist, Herbert Spencer, and one book, by Peter H. Sutcliffe which claims that F.H. Collins said, that Spencer was one of the first to use it regularly. (Yeah, literary history is a lot like a game of telephone). In his book, Sutcliffe uses the name “Oxford Comma”, in reference to it’s common usage by the Oxford University Press, and claims that the name didn’t originate until 1978 when he included it in his book. Personally, I find it stretches credibility to believe that something that was once so common it didn’t need a name has been back in use for one-hundred years or more before it gets named for the institution that supports it. In the early 20th century, Harvard University Press used it almost exclusively in their printing, but again, there’s little information to supply us with a solid date.
Because of this lack of hard literary evidence, I’m in favor of the use of “serial comma” for all common references. You know, for clarity’s sake, which is kind of the point after all, right?
Ok… Why Does It Matter?
This is where it gets fun. With the serial comma, it is obvious when a list exists as opposed to a relative clause. This matters because if I were to tell you that the most influential people in my life have been my parents, Albert Einstein and Jane Austen, there’s suddenly some room for confusion. Now, you might be able to discern what I meant with no trouble, good for you, but some clever souls might be over-thinking things and allow some doubt to creep it. (You would never over-analyze my grammar, right?) Hold up! You might be thinking. “Did she mean that those three people were influential, or did she mean that her parents are Albert Einstein and Jane Austen?” Exactly. Now, in this case, I’m clearly not claiming that my mother is someone who died 62 years before my father was even born, but let’s look at a few more examples to make sure you get the idea.
With the serial comma:
I love my pets, my Grandma, and my ficus.
Without the serial comma:
I love my pets, my grandma and my ficus.
(Luckily, neither my grandmother nor my ficus are actually pets.)
With the serial comma:
I invited Lee, a guitarist, and an acrobat to the funeral.
Without the serial comma:
I invited Lee, a guitarist and an acrobat to the funeral.
(Ironically, the deceased was also an acrobat.)
Just to drive the point home, here are a two of my favorite classic examples of the hazards of always doing away with the Oxford Comma.
“The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
(There’s a great infographic from The Gloss on this one that might be the single thing that changed my stance on the comma argument.)
I could likely spend all day coming up with fun examples of how a lack of serial comma can go wrong in American English, but there is another side to this argument.
Ok. Oxford Comma, got it. So Where’s The Problem?
In fact, the arguments on both sides are numerous. Let’s break it down.
The arguments in favor of the Oxford Comma are simple: with the addition of the extra comma before the conjunction, any ambiguity in the sentence is removed. When the necessary pauses are included as a mental trigger to the reader then clarity is achieved.
In the example I used before with the invitations to the funeral, without the comma there is some question as to whether or not I meant to invite several people or one. I invited Lee, a guitarist and an acrobat. Are there three people, or just one, multi-tallented one? Is Lee a guitarist and an acrobat? (And how did he know the deceased?) With the inclusion of the third comma, it becomes clear that the deceased will be honored by a stirring guitar solo and some thrilling acrobatics. I invited Lee, a guitarist, and an acrobat.
It’s also important to note that the serial comma is supported by the Chicago Style Manual, the MLA, APA, the US Government Publishing Office, and essentially every American style guide other than the Associated Press. (Whether or not this is an argument in favor depends on how prone you are to peer pressure.)
The opposition to the Oxford comma comes from a question in its necessity; mainly, that good grammar cannot hide bad writing. The Associated Press and, by association nearly all news media in the US, rule against the serial comma. A lot of people claim this is simply a matter of tradition, because journalism, obviously, draws its roots back to that fateful date in Strasbourg, 1439. Yes, I know I talk a lot about the printing press, but my fascination aside, it is substantial to the debate at hand. Without the aid of movable typeset, journalism would be a different landscape today.
However, I personally think the more telling argument against the use of the serial comma is in the assumption that educated human beings, those who write, read or communicate regularly, (see what I did there?) aren’t stupid. That is to say that given a list of three or more things without the aid of a superfluous comma, people should be able to decipher the meaning of the sentence, and in cases where ambiguity still exists, a simple changing of the order of the list can clarify it.
Let’s look at the example of the funeral attendees again. If I were to say, I invited Lee, a guitarist and an acrobat, most people would be able to understand that I intended there to be more than one person, however even without the aid of the extra comma I can clarify this statement by reordering the list. I invited a guitarist, an acrobat and Lee.
This argument relies on the fact that people aren’t generally a*holes who will argue with anything. (Shows what the AP knows about the internet...)
Whichever side you fall on, there are many, many arguments, for and against. If you want to do more research into this topic on your own, I highly support your enthusiasm, and question your interests. I had an excellent time climbing down the crazy rabbit hole that is the Oxford Comma War, but I don’t actually think spending several days reading the arguments on both sides is fun for anyone but me. But before you do that, here’s how this whole adventure turned out…
I started out vehemently anti-Oxford comma. I would rage at unsuspecting teenagers in my literature classes. My poor professors did not know what to do with my high-minded ideals of so-called “Grammar Rules”. I was sure I knew best. Literary superiority is in my blood. “Why can’t people just be smart enough to infer from context?!” I often shouted into the ether, (because let’s face it, no one was listening to a sixteen-year-old’s views on grammar). “It’s simple if you just read!”.
As I entered the literary world I began to see things I hadn’t before. “You mean there are times when it really does remove ambiguity? There are times when you can’t just change the wording to make it clearer? Oh… well…. Huh.” In my studies, I read. A lot. Like, a lot. Slowly, my review of English Literature, from Geoffrey Chaucer up through Stephen King, led me to see the grammatical structure of novels in a way I never had. The study of Middle English in particular challenged a lot of my preconceived notions of the way we take sentence structure for granted. (Damnit Chaucer! Ew hev spoilt me agen.) In the course of a few short years, I turned my views around completely. I was now adamantly pro-Oxford comma! (The pretension of youth dictated that I only referred to it as the “Harvard Comma” since it was more commonly used in American English.)
Somewhere along the line, as I became an author, then an editor, then a publisher, I began to see yet more nuance in the ever-raging war. Somewhere between the AP Style, favored by journalists and essayists in most English-speaking countries, and the MLA and Chicago Styles preferred among novelists and anyone educated in America in the last 30 years, I began to see the ultra-fine line where the truce in this battle exists. Now, you might say I’m a Comma-Centralist. A Punctuation-Moderate. A Pro Do-What-Works-For-What-You’re-Writing Grammarian, if you will.
Finally! The Answer… of sorts.
In the end, it boils down to this: Know your style guides. What are you writing? If you know what you’re writing, who you’re writing for, and how you want your thoughts to be presented, then it’s simple enough to choose a style guide that best governs it. Yes, this method means that you need to learn more than one set of grammar rules. Or maybe it just means you need to find an editor who knows the differences. But you can handle it, you’re amazing.
Whatever the case, whichever side of the argument you fall on, (as with so many other things in life) it’s is really all about what you want to say. Granted, there are funnier memes on the pro-comma side, but don't be fooled by the easy joke; good writing is it's own reward (along with the money, prestige, and career boost that come from being able to write well.)
A well placed comma is everyone's friend.