The Oxford Debate

The Oxford Debate

Comma wall art

Is there anything more hotly debated in the grammar world than the Oxford – or serial – comma? Possibly, but that tiny little punctuation mark definitely ranks in the top five. Personally, I don’t think there should be any debate – USE THE STUPID COMMA! – but since a posting should be longer than a few sentences, I’m going to explain WHY the Oxford comma exists and has its place in proper grammar.

So what is the Oxford comma? By definition, it’s the comma used after the final item in a list of three or more things. Simple enough, right? The purpose it serves is to clarify the items in that list as separate entities. For example, let’s look at the following sentence:

I’m going to make apple, blueberry and kiwi pies.

Instead of making three individual pies, the omission of the Oxford comma translates to making two pies – one of which sounds particularly disgusting, if you ask me. There’s no clarification of the three pies because the comma was left out. Let’s try another:

My personal heroes are my parents, Deadpool and Harley Quinn.

Now, while you might be under some delusion as to your parentage (I’m not trying to judge), odds are your parents were not fictional characters. See what happens without that Oxford comma? You can start to look a little questionable in the sanity department (not a bad thing, but if you write that to an editor, they might wonder). Now, let’s look at a properly written sentence:

I dedicate this book to my sister, Chonky-Butt, and Crazy Town.

Written properly, people may wonder what in the world you’re saying or who you know, but at least you’re not going to offend your sister (can you imagine the hit-man she’s going to contract for you if she reads that without the Oxford comma?!). One tiny little curlicue on the page makes the difference between a snort and you’re life being on the line. One final example of proper grammar:

We entered the maze with our friends, zombies, and victims.

Again, it’s all up to you on whether or not you want to insult your compatriots or not. I guess it might depend on how close those friends are? To be accurate, though, that Oxford comma should be in there.

For whatever reason, Americans in particular have this abhorrence with the serial comma, and they keep trying to sacrifice it to the Grammar Gods. It seems to be related to age, too, with the younger generations trying to execute it (in the killing sense, not in the sense of using it) more frequently than those who underwent grammar lessons “back in the day.”

Strictly speaking, is it wrong to omit the Oxford comma?

….no.

Am I ever going to omit using it? Not a chance. I’m a firm believer that it exists and should be utilized for purposes of clarity and ease of reading. Plus, I’m not a psycho, and there are some truly great psychotic sentences generated out there when the serial comma is omitted – just run a Google search for examples.

My best advice is to read your sentence through aloud and ask yourself whether there is any doubt as to how the content could be interpreted. The last thing you want to do is cause someone – say, an editor – to laugh at you when you were trying to be serious.

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