Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Oxford Comma

On Facebook recently, I read the following:

“You know you’re an English language nerd when you know about and have a strong opinion on the use of Oxford commas.”

Guilty! I’m a real English nerd and a perfectionist. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Bible for all things English, says:

“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction.”

However, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and arbiter of all things punctuation, is on the fence:

“One shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”

And the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says:

“In general, do not use a comma before and and or in a series.”

I edit for different publishers, and some require the comma while others do not. And some have no preference. So what’s an editor to do?
In the dark ages, when I went to school, we, as English majors, were taught to always use the Oxford comma. Period. No exceptions.

However, in the field of journalism and any other media where moveable type was used, the pesky comma added another character. In order to pack more words into the same amount of space, the final comma in a series was eliminated. This also happened with some publishing houses, and for the same reason.

But where does that leave those of us who always want to do things correctly?

In my case, I put them in my own writing and trust that the publisher’s editor will remove them as their style sheet requires. As an editor, I try to follow the publisher’s preference. (For private edits, however, I put them in unless the author has indicated otherwise.)

In a recent online article on the subject (, Harry Mount sums it up pretty well:

These are choppy grammatical waters. Usually, the answer is to follow the grammatical rule that removes confusion.”

Some of us still think the Oxford comma should be used on a regular basis. Others argue that it should only be used rarely. The debate will probably continue to rage for some time. I vote with Lynne Truss:

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

How about you? What’s your feeling on the subject?


Paul McDermott said...

*Sharpens quill, hones editing scalpel on convenient whetstone*

Oooh, Lorna! What a juicy can of worms you've opened here!
As a fully paid-up member of the Grammar Gestapo AND the
Punctuation Polizei, I could probably "bore for England" on this
subject! However, I'll try to restrain my wildest urges ...

I hope you won't mind if I take a paragraph from your blog post
as my first example? I mean no offence by this ...

"In the dark ages, when I went to school, we, as English majors,
were taught to always use the Oxford comma. Period. No exceptions."

You're using what's termed the 'Oxford comma' in a perfectly
CORRECT manner. I don't for one moment disagree with that.
The Jesuits who hammered grammatical purity into my soul for eight
years at Grammar School would also agree (even from their graves,
and despite the silver bullets in their brains and the wooden stakes
through their hearts to ensure they were irrevocably and beyond all
reasonable doubt, dead). [The last one is probably NOT an
'Oxford comma'!]

Two strokes of the ferula would have been their judgement on your
Split Infinitive ("to always use ..."): red pencil slash and marginal
annotation "always to use" would have been appended here!

Also, a further note would almost certainly be made about the
opening 'half' of the sentence.
"In the dark ages, when I went to school, we, as English majors, ..."

Some of the more 'liberal' SJs would suggest that the Comma is an
indication of where one may, if needed, take a short breath when
reading aloud. They would then no doubt query if EVERY Comma
in this sentence is strictly necessary ON THESE GROUNDS.
Does it alter the sense in any way if you write the sentence thusly:

"In the dark ages when I went to school we, as English majors, ..."

I could justify this by saying that the slight pauses at the end of the line
makes the sentence 'flow' more easily.
I don't think one is "right" (and the other, by implication, "wrong").
Both convey the identical message, in my view.
Hablisi 1308
There's a lot more I could say, but this is just one aspect of Comma
usage so I'll take a deeeeeeeeep breath and maybe (if I'm not banned
from the blog as a radical heretic!) contribute more later ...

PS. Reading the 'Preview' page, there seem to be big 'gaps' in places I didn't leave gaps. Hope these are resolved when I hit "Publish" !

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Personally, I think that you should use the comma when it helps make the sentence understandable. See how simple I am.

Kit Sloane said...

I've always tried to use CONSISTENCY when writing or editing. If you use the Oxford comma, ALWAYS use it and vice versa and the same goes for everything else. Britain and the U.S. have different "rules." Just be sure you do the same punctuation throughout your writing.

Also, I truly feel that while punctuation use can be flexible, rules for good grammar aren't.... Nothing puts off this editor faster than reading lousy grammar!


Sally Carpenter said...

I work at a newspaper and the AP (Associated Press) stylebook for jounalists says not to use a final comma in front of "and." So I'm don't use an Oxford comma at all. My feeling: since a comma is a means of separating elements, using a comma and a conjunction together is redundant. I think most readers don't notice one way or the other.

Lorna Collins - said...

Paul, you are correct and gave me a great laugh. The split infinitive was a momentary lapse. Your comments serve to illustrate the issues with commas.

Marilyn, for informal writing, this is a great rule of thumb. (Pardon the cliche.)

Kit, I SO agree!

Sally, this is the common guideline for journalism. Just be careful not to leave one out when it is required for clarification.

Thanks for the comments!

Shalanna said...

Book dedication that needed the serial comma:

"I'd like to thank my parents, Hillary Clinton and God."

Shalanna said...

Clarity above all. I advocate the use of the serial comma because it NEVER makes the meaning LESS clear. For disambiguation, it can't be beaten. If we serve clarity, we make reading easier. It isn't easier when you have to regress to re-read and figure out what was really meant. Saving a bit of column-space was the idea in journalism, but that's not an issue nowadays.

Even the lame examples can be improved by the inclusion of the serial (Oxford) comma. If it can prevent a possible misreading, why not use it, as Professor Strunk's little book suggests (and Chicago Manual of Style, too)? I don't understand the opposition. It's like the semicolon hate that you see these days. And the dislike for parentheticals. Sheesh.

Holli said...

I love commas and believe in creative punctuation. I use commas liberally when I want the reader to pause. Then I go through the manuscript and remove as many as I can stand to remove that I know aren't not supposed to be there. Many times it doesn't read the same. Sometimes I end up changing the sentence around, or putting a dash, which I believe is second only to the ellipsis in terms of being the sexiest punctuation.

My dilemma is that I want the reader to read it the way I hear it in my own head, but I don't want the readers who are rule followers to believe I don't know any better than to abuse punctuation.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

I'm with Marilyn and Holli. Also, I've had a difficult time "overcoming" my comma use as a former on-the-air news broadcaster. When writing my scripts, I simply put commas where I needed to pause for emphasis, for a breath, or whatever! Thanks for this terrific post and the comments.

D.R. Ransdell said...

Ha! I've been trying to get students to use the "Oxford Comma" for years without knowing a nice, fancy name for it. I like the Oxford Comma. I like to separate elements that are not the same. I try to impress this on my students, who can't generally tell a conjunction from a stove (they don't use either). I do try to tell them that they want to get credit for their first draft, their second draft, and their final draft, and that they want me to think they really had three drafts!

Thanks for the interesting tidbit. I went to Oxford last summer for the first time, so now I feel especially justified in trying to get students to write with one.