The Oxford Comma
I’ve avoided it so far, since it’s something of a holy war, but I thought I’d stir the grammatical pot a little this week and take a stance on the Oxford comma. I worked as a copy editor at a newspaper for a year long ago, and the Associated Press style guide dictated that we omit the comma before the final item in a series (presumably because it saved a smidgin of column width on the page). An example will help clarify:
John went to the store to buy bacon, eggs and milk.
John went to the store to buy bacon, eggs, and milk.
The first sentences omits the final comma, while the second includes it. In a sentence like this, it’s hard to make a very strong case that one comma style is better than the other. But what if we want to make a more complex sentence?
John went to the store to buy bacon, eggs and milk and ran out of gas on the way home.
Omitting the comma makes me rush the sentence as I read it over, so that to my mind’s ear, “eggs and milk” comes out more like a single unit — “eggsandmilk” — as I move forward in the sentence. The final comma provides an explicit break in the rhythm of the sentence that you must supply yourself if the guidepost comma is missing. Scanning over the sentence visually before reading it, it looks as if it will be a compound sentence with one pause in the middle, and the fact that it is in fact a different sort of sentence is at odds with the expectation that a quick glance at the punctuation sets.
Leaving out the final comma in a series can also cause ambiguity, often to humorous effect. Consider these examples I’ve borrowed from the Wikipedia article on the serial comma:
- To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
- Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
I’ve recently seen online several references to a funny cartoon example (not terribly dirty, but also not entirely clean, so click with that in mind) providing an example that includes “the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Of course, anybody reading these funny examples can understand what the author means, but I can certainly imagine cases in which real ambiguity arose from the omission of the final comma.
So, where do you stand on the Oxford comma, and what’s your rationale? I’m very much in favor of it.