THE OXFORD COMMA – MY TAKE
A year ago, I did a general article on commas. One of the things I addressed was commas in a series. Back then, I didn’t specifically address them as the “Oxford Comma,” or, as it’s also known, the “serial comma” or the “Harvard Comma,” but they’re all the same thing.
Lately, this little punctuation mark has even made the news and a few Facebook threads, circulating around through the electronic ether.
Despite the arguments, mostly for, I’m still one against the use of it.
WHAT IS THE OXFORD COMMA?
The best way to describe it is that when you have commas in a series, the last one, right before an “and” or an “or” is the Oxford.
The zoo had a variety of animals including bear, geese, lions, apes(,) and snakes.
That last comma is the Oxford comma.
Would you go if the movie had comedy, romance, cowboys, monsters(,) or trains?
The last comma is the Oxford comma.
In both cases, the Oxford comma, in my mind, is unnecessary clutter and does nothing for the sentence. The and or or takes the place of the final comma and the comma is redundant.
PROBLEMS WITH NOT USING THE OXFORD
One of the big reasons, especially of late, for using the Oxford is to remove ambiguity. The infamous contract negotiation incident that’s been in the news lately is a good example. While I read the example explanation, I’ve already forgot it so I won’t go into those details and possibly get something wrong. Instead, I’ll cite much simpler examples.
Detective Barnett talked to Roger’s two aunts, George and Charlie.
In this case, it sounds like Roger has two aunts named George and Charlie when the author meant to say Detective Barnett talked to the two aunts plus George and Charlie.
Detective Barnett talked to Roger’s two aunts, George, and Charlie.
A little better, but not really.
I’d write it a little differently to completely remove the ambiguity.
After talking to Roger’s two aunts, Detective Barnett also talked to George and Charlie.
PROBLEMS WITH USING THE OXFORD
The main one is clutter.
It can just as easily cause ambiguity.
What if one of Roger’s two aunt’s are actually named George and Charlie? That would make the sentence correct. However, how about this?
Detective Barnett talked to Roger’s aunt, Charlie, and George.
In this case, Aunt Charlie is a masculine name but is her nickname.
Detective Barnett talked to Roger’s aunt, Charlie and George.
Huh? Even more confusing by eliminating the Oxford.
Detective Barnett talked to Roger’s aunt Charlie and then George.
No commas at all.
One could pick the technicalities to death, but it’s best to keep it as simple and clear as possible. Get rid of the ambiguities in the best way possible.
I learned the old Air Force technical writing method, less clutter, get to the point. Though I have the Chicago Manual of Style and several other writing tomes at my fingertips, well, right above my head in my computer cabinet, all within easy access, I know what they say and disagree.
My publisher is on my side with this one as well.
No Oxford Comma.
No ambiguity either.
Then again, it’s up to you and your publisher/editor.