Oxford Comma

Over one hundred years after its introduction by Horace Hart, a printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915, the Oxford Comma persists as a source of controversy. Here again, the debate wages on…

by: Stewart Berg

“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma?”

— Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma

I give a fuck about the Oxford Comma, and the reason is none other than that it is reasonable to do so.

For the unaware, the Oxford Comma is the name given to that final comma so often neglected in lists. An example of its neglect can be seen in one writing: My favorite colors are yellow, blue and red. For the nonusing, it bears stating that the following proof will require the assumption that pieces of punctuation, such as commas, of which the Oxford Comma is a type, are intended for the reader rather than the writer. Only one example will be needed in order to clear up the issue, and we can begin by examining the following sentence, which includes the use of the Oxford Comma:

I am going to the store to buy pasta, macaroni, and cheese.

The meaning of this sentence is clear — that I am going to the store to buy three individual items. Now, let us examine the same sentence, though this time without the Oxford Comma:

I am going to the store to buy pasta, macaroni and cheese.

The meaning of this second sentence is unclear. It could mean the same thing as the first, which is that I am going to the store to buy three items. But it could also mean that I am going to the store to buy pasta and that the type of pasta I am buying is macaroni, to make the dish macaroni  and cheese. The nonuse of the Oxford Comma is the cause of this confusion since it becomes unclear whether the last two items in the list are to be read together or separately, and, based upon this demonstrated ability to alter the meaning of a sentence, the Oxford Comma is, therefore, as important a piece of punctuation as any other.

The increase in clarity caused by the use of the Oxford Comma should now, hopefully, be clear. The nonuser may wish to interject here, claiming that the second sentence, with its lack of an Oxford Comma, takes up less space than the first, but this saving seems hardly worth the overall loss in meaning. In fact, critics of the Oxford Comma seem to cling to this claim to concision as their primary crutch, which is a rather dogmatic stance that ignores the fact that brevity is the soul of wit only when there is no lacking in it. There are, however, numerous other points in favor of the Oxford Comma beyond an understanding of its function, and three of these, for consideration, are included below.

First, nonuse of the Oxford Comma diminishes the leeway for wordplay. Imagine, for instance, a writer who wishes to state that he or she will be going to the store to buy one box of macaroni and cheese. This writer, perhaps for some reason of snobbery, considers macaroni and cheese to be a mass-produced monstrosity that is hardly worthy of being included among all that is pasta. The user of the Oxford Comma could choose to express him or herself in the following way:

I am going to the store to buy pasta, macaroni and cheese.

Since the user of the Oxford Comma did not, in this instance, use it, the reader can be assured that the latter words of the sentence are one unit. Additionally, the writer has chosen to use italics to highlight the particular stress that should be placed on a particular word, and there are all sorts of other contextual clues that this writer could include in surrounding sentences as a way of cementing his or her meaning.

Now, let us see how the nonuser of the Oxford Comma would write that same sentence when trying for the same sentiment:

I am going to the store to buy pasta, macaroni and cheese.

This sentence may appear identical to the one above it, but it will not be so to the reader; this confusion is caused because the lack of an Oxford Comma does not, in this case, absolutely indicate the latter two items as one unit. Since this second writer is already a nonuser of the Oxford Comma, he or she is not able to make any indication by its nonuse. Due to the added difficulty of trying to fit in the meaning indicated by the italics, it is likely that this second writer would feel forced to rewrite the sentence entirely, thereby losing one potential avenue of expression.

Second, nonuse of the Oxford Comma by way of an argument for concision over clarity is in direct violation of the underlying purpose of communication. The deliverance of thought from one mind to another in the most unmitigated way possible is communication’s Hippocratic Oath, and any creed that favors speed and the ease of the writer over safety and concern for the reader is dooming at its core. Like with turn-signals and taxes, one’s opinion of the Oxford Comma should be based upon what it does for others, not one’s self.

Third, the nonuse of the Oxford Comma by one writer ends up hurting all writers. Disregard for any rule will inevitably lead to diminished returns from within it, and the standard of the Oxford Comma becomes, like any standard, tattered once treated so for long enough; this loss may seem minor to the nonuser who has no issue with answering any difficulty with a rewrite, but the next writer who comes along may not be as cavalier toward lessened expression, and this new writer will be forced to pay the price for the nonuser’s unwillingness to do so. It is for this reason that nonusers of the Oxford Comma can be said to have their own immediate interests at heart in that they save precious space on their page as well as valuable time that would have to be necessarily spent in the changing of their minds, but their decision hurts all around them in that it makes things that much more confusing for the reader and that much more difficult for any other writer attempting to communicate via the written word. 

 

Stewart Berg is a 2014 graduate of Pacific Lutheran University living in Austin, Texas. He has two collections of works currently available, The Sored Incident, and Six Similar Stories and Nine and One Stories).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *