Sunday, January 11, 2015

In Support of the Oxford Comma

by Pa Rock

I saw a minor rant on the Internet yesterday by a fellow who was arguing against the use of what he referred to as the "Oxford comma."  After doing a quick bit of research, I discovered that not only was I familiar with the Oxford comma, but I also had a long-standing preference for its use.

The Oxford comma (sometimes called the Harvard comma) takes its name from a style used by the Oxford University Press.  It is a comma used in a series of three or more items that comes just before the conjunction - usually "and," "or," "nor," or "but."  For instance, if I wrote that my best friends were Larry, Moe, and Curly - the comma before the word "and" would be the Oxford comma.  Surprisingly, many people tend to get very disturbed or defensive regarding its use, depending on when and how they learned the rules of grammar.

(A recent poll by found that 57% of respondents favored the use of the Oxford comma, and 43% did not.  Most of those who did favor its usage were more likely to feel that they were strong grammarians, while those who did not favor its usage were less likely to consider themselves as being strong in grammar.)

I attended high school in rural Missouri at a time just before the little communities started consolidating their schools into bigger institutions.   Being educated in a small school presented some distinct disadvantages.   Our science curriculum, for example, was abysmal.  But there were also some areas that showed great strength - and one of those was in English instruction.  My English teachers believed in writing - and writing and writing!  Not only did we diagram sentences to understand their make-up and how they worked, we learned how to write in complete sentences and complete paragraphs.

We were taught not to fear the comma.  Commas were used where pauses in conversation would naturally occur, as well as for a host of other formal needs, such as in addresses and dates, and for dividing items in a sequence or series.   And yes, comma's were used in a series just prior to conjunction that set off the final item - the Oxford comma - although we did not know it by that name.

That's how I was taught to use the comma.  When I got to college, however, things were different.  I had several courses that involved writing, including basic composition and exposition, and those instructors were adamant that a comma not be used before the conjunction in a series of items.  I felt the college professors were wrong, though I could not articulate why, but I used their rules until I graduated.  Once out in the free world, I again began using the Oxford comma.  That was the way I had been originally taught  - and it was an integral part of my writing comfort level.

Most writing handbooks and style books today appear to favor the use of the Oxford comma, but surprisingly, the Associated Press Manual of Style does not.  I have written for newspapers and know that their preference is for short, choppy sentences that are unencumbered with excess punctuation.

One really funny example that I found while reading up on "Oxford commas" involved two captions for two cartoons.  The first cartoon was of a pair of exotic dancers, JFK, and Stalin.  The caption read, "We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin."  The second caption dropped the Oxford comma and simply read, "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin."  The cartoon, of course, was of JFK and Stalin dressed as exotic dancers!

Dropping the Oxford comma can completely change the meaning of the sentence.  In the case of the strippers, JFK, and Stalin, dropping it created an "appositive," but that's an entirely different grammar lesson.

Teach your children to write well - and one way to do that is by exposing them to great literature!

1 comment:

Xobekim said...

Memories! I recall persisting in the use of the Oxford comma at SMS. This small assault on the English faculty demonstrated an adamant refusal to not go gentle into that good night. However, it was during this period when my writing developed staccato bursts of rhythm. I think my minor revolution ended in a draw.