I’m going to talk about a controversial topic here. Some of you may get angry, stop talking to me, and block me on our shared social networks. This post is about the Oxford comma. If you have strong feelings about it, you’ll notice that I used one two sentences ago.
The Oxford comma and I go way back. In elementary school (“grammar school” — ha!), I first became acquainted with the little guy. I was taught that, while it’s technically correct to put a comma before the “and” in a list, it’s more modern not to. Since I was a precocious, nonconformist type of kid, I adopted the Oxford comma. Over the years, my English teachers would circle it in red, suggesting that I leave it out, but I always kept it in. I knew I was right.
Later, in college, I began to realize that the Oxford comma wasn’t suited to every occasion. We drifted apart. In a list of A, B and C, his sideways smirk would just be distracting. I reserved my old pal for the most special of circumstances. I almost never called him up at all.
After many years of focusing solely on hard science, I got back into creative writing. The Oxford comma and I began to see eye-to-squinty-eye again. We became constant companions. But, like anyone who has fallen back into an old relationship, I questioned my judgement. I worried about “comma vomit,” an oft-used criticism of amateur writing. I took a class in Professional Editing and learned that, though his name was well-known, Mr. Oxford was kept on a short leash at the most high-brow of functions.
The key, I’ve found, is moderation. There are these cutesy, pro-Oxford comics going around, like the ones below, and I just can’t agree. Unless one is writing in a very surreal voice, the reader should be able to figure out whether, for example, the strippers a writer is referring to are JFK and Stalin.
While technical writing benefits from the clearest voice possible, which often means including the Oxford comma, creative writing is enhanced by giving the reader the benefit of the doubt. A creative writer shouldn’t have to hold the reader’s hand — readers want to be mentally stimulated. If that means envisioning orange juice-covered toast for a split second before realizing that it wasn’t (or was) the author’s intention, so be it.
Edit to add: It’s possible that I’ve been talking about commas too much lately…
Another edit to add: These images are uncredited because I don’t know who created them. They were being circulated, uncredited, on Facebook and Tumblr when I wrote this post (and that was one of the reasons why I wrote it!). If you know who created them, please let me know and I’ll add image credits. Thanks!
This is a very well written article and I have referenced it many times. Thank you!
I am writing the styleguide for my company’s content department, and was looking for a funny picture about oxford commas (of which I’m ardently in favor). Thanks!
I disagree strongly with your reasoning. My enjoyment of a story has never been enhanced by wondering what a sentence literally means (as opposed to any figurative or structural meanings, which are where indeterminacy can be beautiful). And if an author thinks it’s actually useful that I be left to question whether there’s orange juice on that toast, then she’s welcome to leave out all the punctuation she likes.
More importantly, you didn’t give any credit to the people who made the comics. Where did they come from?
Brian — I only just saw this comment from several months ago. Sorry for the late reply. I’m all for leaving a sentence open to interpretation, which is why I think the Oxford comma is optional. [I’m editing this comment to clarify. In the post, I literally meant that, if it takes a reader a “split second” to figure out a list (e.g., “eggs, toast and orange juice”) then I personally think the Oxford comma should be left out (no one would really think the author meant “eggs and toast covered in orange juice”). If it takes a considerable amount of puzzling for no reason, then I think there should be an Oxford comma for clarity. However, I also think a sentence can be left open to interpretation intentionally, generally for the figurative or structural reasons you mentioned, but also for other reasons — for example, in dialogue when we’re unsure of a character’s actual meaning or in a mystery when an author doesn’t want to be too give too much away. I hope this makes sense — it’s totally just my opinion!]
I wish I could have credited these pictures, but I don’t know who the author is. These images were going around Facebook and Tumblr at the time I wrote this post, uncredited, which was one of the reasons why I wrote this.
Like you, I was ALWAYS taught to use the comma before “and” when listing things. To now say that it’s not needed is like telling a child there is no Santa, Tooth Fairy, nor Easter Bunny. (Notice how I DID use it there?)
BTW, LOVE the pictures! It emphasizes our point very well! <:-)