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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.

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  1. Here in Australian, the Oxford comma isn’t used and while I understand the reasoning behind using it, I don’t see people getting confused here, or at least not very often. I think it really is all about what you’re used to.

    That said, when I work with International clients, I’m very careful to use the Oxford comma since that’s what they’re used to.

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  2. I was taught in school not to use it, so it was ingrained in me for years to follow that rule. I recently started doing some legal transcription from home and they require it to be used. It took a lot of getting used to because I thought it looked so weird as opposed to what I was used to, but now it’s second nature to use it. I never read sentences the way your examples propose they could be read, but now that I use it, I understand how the mistake could be made. Great article!

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  3. I’m very much a fan of the Oxford comma, for the sake of clarity. I’ve read numerous ambiguous sentences that would have been so much clearer with that one extra comma!

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  4. If one grows up in a culture without a serial comma, then the two examples from Wikipedia are not going to cause confusion.

    The sense of each of the sentences ‘falls in’ even before one approaches the commas.

    I am English and my wife is American. So now I read with both expectations simultaneously – and it still doesn’t cause a problem.

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  5. I’m half Irish, half welsh so im screwed either with or without it. To me, for what I was taught at school was for a pause in the sentence. As to the last comma in your suggestions above, I was taught never to use a comma immediately before “and”. As to wether or not this is grammatically correct,I’m not that smart.

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  6. When I was younger I cared much more for what grammarians (authority!) had to say. Professionally I was also bound by style sheets.
    Now that I am in My Prime, like Miss Jean Brodie, I do what seems sensible to me (which also means clarity for others) and hang the grammarians or anyone else.
    With that in mind, YES for the Oxford comma, for rhythm, clarity, and shapeliness.
    (Notice that last example —)

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  7. I’ve been hoping you would write about this.

    I think the most salient point in your post is about “rushing the sentence” without it. I don’t think confusion is really an issue for many readers; when you have a series of three or more things and the first two are separated by a comma, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on from the context.

    I always use the oxford comma, until I don’t. When you use it is sets up a regular, baseline cadence that carries readers along, all while following the rules.

    Then you can deliberately leave it out and readers will feel the change in pace. If you always use the Oxford comma, or never use the Oxford comma, you and your readers are missing out either way.

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    1. Yes, for me it has a lot to do with rhythm and with setting up expectations for where the sentence is likely to go. The examples I provide are of course absurd and wouldn’t cause real confusion. And as you say, in most cases, you could probably figure out the meaning of a complex, un-serial-comma-laden sentence if you squinted hard enough. But I think it’s generally the job of the writer to avoid making the reader squint at the writing, and I think that more often than not, the serial comma does a better job of it.

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      1. I agree. When I read and write, I hear it in my head, and I believe in writing it the way it sounds. Isn’t that the point of punctuation? If you would pause while speaking, by all means use the comma.

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  8. I learned no to use it. However, as my writing assignments became more complex and detailed, I found that I needed to use it for clarity’s sake.

    There is so much loosey-goosey English being used nowdays, it’s kind of hard to take anyone to task for using the Oxford Comma.

    Also, if it helps us keep JFK and Stalin identified as political figures rather than strippers, I’m all for it.

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  9. Well, I am not English, but in Afrikaans we have the same rule, which I sometimes disobey, depending on the “feel” of the sentence. Leaving it out in your examples, certainly made me smile!

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  10. I think that leaving out the comma just looks as though you forgot the third-grade lesson (or whatever grade it was) to use commas in a series of similar items. It aids clarity for the reader, and can really make a difference in meaning for anything longer than a very simple sentence.

    The examples you used prove this point perfectly, which is why I’m definitely in favour of the Oxford comma.

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    1. When I was in whatever grade, I was taught not to use it. The final comma would have been circled as incorrect. So, I tend not to use it. But, truthfully I don’t really notice one way or the other. I am a terrible editor. My brain is on auto-correct and sees whatever is supposed to be there.

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  11. I’m very much in favor of the Oxford comma. Sometimes I don’t use it, because I was one of those who were taught to leave it out, but most of the time I do employ it, for the sake of clarity.

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  12. Comma placement is one of the many reasons I pay an editor. Sometimes I even add commas where none should be. So, while I am sure many editors enjoy a free ride, reading properly punctuated manuscripts, my editor actually earns his/her money. 😉

    All kidding aside, I love your articles. Especially the ones on punctuation, because mine sucks. I am always eager to polish up my literary act. Please, keep the articles coming.

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      1. Colon and semicolon usage? Use your discretion, I could probably use the lesson on whatever topic you choose. If not me, then surely someone will learn something. Thanks.

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      2. Oh my gosh, YES PLEASE! I love semicolons a bit too much for my own good, and although I feel I use them correctly, the english monster within me gets a little grumbly and makes me think I’m not. I’d absolutely LOVE to really nail down the correct usage of it!

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  13. I don’t like the last comma, at least as I’m writing. What other people do in this scenario don’t bother. Your second example, however, is a case where I would use it. And if I’m really in doubt, I have no problem admitting, I’ll just change the sentence around.

    It’s funny you approach the subject of grammar, because I had to look up some old rules today that I had forgotten as well. How to handle the question mark, when you’re really not asking a question, as in…What should you do with the question mark, you may ask. It’s a real gray area, and it sounds like the rules of grammar are loosening up, as we are now writing in a more conversational style. In the end, when I’m in question, I go with how we talk. I break the rules all the time with sentence fragments and the like. I’m an advocate for speaking as we talk and inserting punctuation where I want the reader to pause. Conversational style is fine, but text lingo is not.

    The thing that really gets me is a misspelling. I can handle a typo, but not a misspelled word from someone who is trying to be a writer.

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  14. So far in the writing journey, and of course the editing process, I find the comma is my favourite common punctuation. For someone who does not have an editing background, I am with you on this Daryl. The comma creates a pause. It is evident when I am reading in class or at home to my eight year old child, that the comma is necessary to show the breaks in a sentence. No eggsandmilk at our house please!

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  15. I am definitely pro Oxford comma, although as the examples show, the sentence is often much funnier without it.

    If you want something to tackle next Darryl, how about a treatise on the correct use and misuse of “moot” such as in “it’s a moot point.”

    As always, I look forward to your next column.

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  16. Good on you! I also find myself rushing as I read. When I was in grade school, a thousand years ago, we couldn’t use a comma without a really good reason. Much like we were forbidden to use the first person when writing essays in university.

    I say clarity and enjoyable reading first. I loved this piece. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

    Bec

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  17. I find it easier with the Oxford comma; without it the sentence is left to be interpreted incorrectly. Though the sentence may seemed too spliced and segregated, it adds clarity and puts the writer in control.

    “John went to the store to buy bacon, eggs, and milk, and ran out of gas on the way home.”

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  18. I agree Daryl. I use the Oxford comma religiously. But I do occasionally, albeit rarely, leave it out. My constant goal is to clearly convey intended meaning, and if that requires bending some established rule, then that is what I do.

    There is more to using correct punctuation than employing ironclad rules. Punctuation visually represents the natural rise and fall of our speaking voice – the flow, or rhythm, as you said. It represents our natural stops and starts, the pause for emphasis, the unspoken “I will now give you a list of items as promised by this colon”. It also yields up the otherwise hidden nuances of implied meaning; meaning that words alone cannot capture. A well-placed semi-colon or comma can eliminate at least two or three words, allowing the reader to experience the rich completeness of the unsaid. Punctuation is every bit as much a language as the words we write, and successfully using the two together… well, that type of writing is just pure pleasure to read.

    My personal rule: Know the rules – intimately – then adapt them to personal style, format, content, while developing the wisdom to know when and why it is necessary to break a certain rule. Sometimes, breaking a rule adds as much clarity as what maintaining the rule does otherwise. That’s where the art of writing absolutely depends on experience and wisdom. Without which, the written word becomes mechanical drudgery for the author, and exhausting work for the reader. Correctly adhering to this rule is the difference between success and failure; a well-read book, or one that sits on the shelf collecting dust.

    Thanks for your excellent posts. Keep it up!

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