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Serial Killer: The Dissing of the Oxford Comma

by Meghan Casey on July 14th, 2011

"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."
- Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves

In June, it was discovered that Oxford University had revised its style guide and pulled the plug on the use of the Oxford comma (otherwise known as the serial comma).

They issued the following guidelines:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used—especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:

They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:

The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

Now, to be clear, The Oxford Style Manual, which is governed by the autonomous Oxford University Press and for which the Oxford comma is named, has done no such thing. (Phew.)

What we said

At Brain Traffic (a.k.a. wordnerd central), Oxford University’s decision to drop the serial comma was cause for immediate debate. We had a very civil, yet heated, discussion about our reactions. Here are some choice quotes. (NOTE: You may or may not be able to see my personal biases come through here.)

The yays (i.e., the people who are right)

Melissa Rach:
To me, the serial comma is a courtesy. Is it required? No. Is it a nice thing to do for your users? Absolutely. Incidentally, in journalism school, I learned that early newspapers removed the serial comma (and the second space between sentences) to conserve column space. So, it wasn’t about best practices, it was about money and discourteous typesetters. Maybe I will write to Miss Manners for support.

Angie Halama:
When I was a copyeditor, the in-house style where I worked did not call for using the Oxford, or serial, comma. But, as the Oxford Style Guide entry on the comma points out, there are still times the serial comma is needed to “assist in the meaning of a sentence” or “help resolve ambiguity.” And these situations can be ambiguous in themselves. I worked with smart writers, so this wasn’t usually a big deal. But for many people, the intricacies of punctuation rules are confusing, frustrating, and ridiculous. That’s why copyeditors exist, but even they have to wade through these complexities. So why not simplify just one thing and make the serial comma the rule? Then everyone can save their energy for more important things, like knowing when to hyphenate a compound modifier. Which I know you’ve been really concerned about. As you should be.

Tenessa Gemelke:
My vote? CLARITY.

The serial comma rarely introduces confusion, but it often saves the day with its clear enumeration. For example, consider the following list of options:

Your sandwich choices are turkey, beef, ham, and Cheez Whiz.

The serial comma is essential here. Although wise people know Cheez Whiz tastes best as a singular sandwich ingredient, crazy people might try to eat it with ham. In most uses, the serial comma makes it clear that the final and penultimate items in a list are distinct from each other.

Of course, there are rare instances in which the serial comma causes trouble:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds, and America.

Is this book dedicated to three entities, or am I the secret love child of Burt Reynolds? In either case, it would be clearer to revise:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds and America.

I dedicate this book to my father (Burt Reynolds) and America.

I’m okay with ditching the serial comma when it’s problematic. But nine times out of ten, adding it makes for clearer reading. And that’s why I love it very, very much.

Kristina Halvorson:
I like the serial comma the way I like my punctuation outside of the quotation marks (which, by the way, makes me a sympathizer to the Brits and a traitorous American). They delineate; they contextualize. Generally speaking, I prefer extra-strength clarity: the serial comma singles out each item or phrase in your list so there's no confusion about what is grouped with (or attached to) what. Is it more cluttered? Yeah, sure. But it's worth the added clarity and meaning. And you know who agrees with me about commas? SHAKESPEARE, THAT'S WHO.

P.S. Next they're probably going to try to get rid of using ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. WHAT?

Christine Anameier:
Damn them!

I like the serial comma because I feel it reduces ambiguity. Emily dislikes it because she feels it adds unneeded complexity. I don’t really care what other people do as long as I can continue to use it. That’s essentially my approach to all the style controversies at BT: live and let live.

Long live the serial comma.

Meghan Casey
Well, I have an online dating profile up on the internets. In it, I write, “I use the serial comma. Get used to it.” So, yeah, you get the picture.

The nays (i.e., the people who are wrong)

Emily Folstad:
Finally! Serial comma = unnecessary typographic clutter. Good riddance! Does this mean that Brain Traffic proofreaders will finally stop filling up my documents with that little sucker?

Julie Vollenweider:
I’m an informal and impatient gal. If I could write everything in shorthand or abbreviations, I would. Punctuation included. I’m in full support of Oxford University editing the serial comma right on out of the rules. Just wish the Oxford Style Manual would follow suit.

In conclusion

Clearly, the yays have it. According to me. (And, anyway, the Brain Traffic style guide says to use the serial comma. So there.)

But, don’t be glum, naysayers. At least there is an (overplayed) theme song for people who don’t give a **** about the Oxford comma. Take it away, Vampire Weekend …

  • Melissa Rach

    Tenessa DOES look a bit like Burt Reynolds. Hmmm….

  • Doug

    I really don’t see how an additional comma eats up that much space, inks, pixels, or attention.

    @Tenessa: just dedicate that book to father, America, and Burt Reynolds, unless the hierarchy of the orders absolutely requires Burt to be in the middle of that sandwich.

  • http://www.12thday.co.uk Jason Ball

    This is one of those arguments that it’s impossible to win one way or another. It’s perhaps interesting (to us grammar geeks) that while the Oxford comma has generally been advocated by the Oxford Press, in Britain its use tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

    For me this is about flow. The Oxford comma tends to add a slight hesitation right where I don’t want it. So, unless clarity is in danger, I avoid it.

    Just my two pence. Two cents? Whatever.

  • http://twitter.com/k_rost k_rost

    Black and white. Two concepts joined by “and.” Which is what “and” is for. (Wow, that’s a funny sentence.) So if “and” is showing up in a phrase between two words that aren’t really meant to be joined… that just sounds like a recipe for confusion to me, myself, and I. That’s three of us, not one and a pair. See?

  • http://www.facebook.com/RSGracey R Stephen Gracey

    Doesn’t matter whether they have it in their guide or not: This debate will continue as long as there is English. I forget the first literary instance of the singular “they,” but it was a looooooong time ago: “Whoever did it, they were wrong…” Likewise, anglophones have not been able to learn how to “lay something” on the floor, and then “lie down” beside it in at least a couple of centuries.

    But the serial comma will always be right….

  • http://www.facebook.com/RSGracey R Stephen Gracey

    Doesn’t matter whether they have it in their guide or not: This debate will continue as long as there is English. I forget the first literary instance of the singular “they,” but it was a looooooong time ago: “Whoever did it, they were wrong…” Likewise, anglophones have not been able to learn how to “lay something” on the floor, and then “lie down” beside it in at least a couple of centuries.

    But the serial comma will always be right….

  • Meghan Casey

    What do you mean, “impossible to win”? I’m right. They are wrong.

  • CC Holland

    I’m a wholehearted fan of the serial comma and shall refuse to part with it until they yank it from my cold, dead, and moldering hands.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.devine1 Ken Devine

    Long live the serial comma! It’s just one less thing editors and readers have to think about. And it barely takes up any space.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.devine1 Ken Devine

    Long live the serial comma! It’s just one less thing editors and readers have to think about. And it barely takes up any space.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.devine1 Ken Devine

    I was also relieved to see that I’m not the only one who thinks some punctuation looks more natural outside of the end quotation mark. Kristina may have just started another debate.

  • http://twitter.com/robgolbeck Rob Golbeck

    I was in favour of dropping the serial comma, but the yays have made such a convincing argument.  Now I’m just confused.

    Also, the Burt Reynolds part made me giggle while trying to contain full out laughter, which just made me look like even more of a nut to the people around me. Nice work.

  • http://halte.ro/ ioana

    Join the rest of the world! In every European language I speak or know a little about, the serial comma goes against punctuation rules (with some exceptions) and we never learned about it in English class either. British English, obviously.  
    I have always wondered why Americans put an extra comma, it just looks so wrong.  :)  Although I’m sure it is helpful.
    On the other hand I’ve heard many who, like Mrs. Halvorson, advocate the use of logical punctuation against the American convention of placing all punctuation inside the quotation marks.
     

  • http://halte.ro/ ioana

    Join the rest of the world! In every European language I speak or know a little about, the serial comma goes against punctuation rules (with some exceptions) and we never learned about it in English class either. British English, obviously.  
    I have always wondered why Americans put an extra comma, it just looks so wrong.  :)  Although I’m sure it is helpful.
    On the other hand I’ve heard many who, like Mrs. Halvorson, advocate the use of logical punctuation against the American convention of placing all punctuation inside the quotation marks.
     

  • http://lauracreekmore.com Laura Creekmore

    I have to say, this is the first time I’ve ever heard a good argument in favor of the serial comma. Kristina is swaying me, just a tad. But I’ve long hated that little [in most cases] extra bit of type.

    Here’s my quandary with punctuation and quote marks. I love, love, love the British style for clarity, but I think the U.S. style LOOKS better. Since I’m a word person, I think I’m supposed to fall on the side of clarity. This is another place where the argument just doesn’t seem worth it, one way or the other, but now that the how-many-spaces-after-a-period and the serial/Oxford-comma debates are over, I see this one looming.

  • http://profiles.google.com/melanie.seibert Melanie Seibert

    Why would anyone oppose the Oxford comma? What did it ever do to them?

  • http://www.grassfedcontent.com Matthew Grocki

    Content Strategists finally have their “tastes great/less filling” debate.

    For years I have screamed DOWN WITH THE SERIAL COMMA. In fact, Margot Bloomstein and I arm wrestled over this very subject (she won). And then she broke a beer bottle over my head.

    Surprises me BT would be pro serial comma as that bad boy flies in the face of one of content strategy’s core principles; simplicity and less is more.

    Clearly, I’m on team Less Filling.

  • http://www.rewdy.com/ A-Rox!

    People who make arguments implying they favor the removal of the serial comma out of an interest for simplicity, in my opinion, are missing the forest for the trees. Simplicity is not good for simplicity’s sake. Simplicity is good for CLARITY’S sake. If removing elements in the name of simplicity creates a lack of clarity, simplicity is no longer beneficial (at least not if communication is your goal).

    For example, no one would never remove all the labels from meters in a car to make a more better interface. That would create a wild lack of clarity and would be a design failure. Likewise, removing punctuation in the name of simplicity fails in a communication sense.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

  • Susan Bond

    I tweeted this blog when it first came out (yesterday), so now I’ve had a (little) time to think about it and respond. At the risk of being called a fence-sitter, I vote for a CONDITIONAL YES. 

    The condition is clarity. So, while I’d never use the comma in a serial list of single words, the little darling of CMS punctuators everywhere can be really useful in separating series elements clearly. Series words? No comma before the final and. Series elements? Use comma when needed for clarity.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

    Grocki, I will cut you.

    And never sacrifice clarity for the sake of simplicity. Sometimes we need more detail (instructional copy, a comma, a diagram) to understand a complicated process or issue.

    If you wouldn’t assemble Ikea furniture without the instructions, why in hell would you write objects in series without the punctuation that indicates they are discrete items.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

    Thank you, Brain Traffic, for again bringing light to the issues of our generation, country, and WORLD that should rival the debt ceiling and global warming in importance and reporting.

    (Ceiling? Paint it. Warming? Open the fridge and stand in front of it. Geez.)

    I use the serial comma because clarity and precision always trump simplicity; this applies to both the design of communication and the content itself. The comma separates elements from each other to offer informational value and a cue for reading aloud. In that sense, it’s an element of user-centered design. Are we so rude to ignore the needs of our users?

    And Matt Grocki started it so I was perfectly within my rights to crack that bottle over his head. That’s how we do things in New England.

  • http://twitter.com/carmenhill Carmen Hill

    It just makes me really happy that there are 19 comments on this topic that is near and dear to my heart. Even though as a conditional serial comma user, I am outnumbered here ;)

  • http://www.dangayle.com/ Dan Gayle

    I’m not a proficient or fluent writer, so every time I hit this issue I get confused. In junior high, I learned that the serial comma was the way to do it. Wasn’t until my college newspaper that I ever even learned that some people had an issue with it.

    That being said, I appreciate having it more often than I curse its existence.

  • Kaija

    Tenessa is amusing. 

  • http://bombardone.com/sewingprincess Silvia Bm

    It’s true that in British English serial comma is rarely used and the same applies to EU legislation.  If you are interested to read the EU legislation style guide, you can find it here http://publications.europa.eu/code/en/en-000500.htm

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brien-Patterson/100001906123908 Brien Patterson

    I’m confused.

    Until a colleague started ranting about our organization not using serial commas in our publications, I never gave the idea much thought. I began looking on the net and was surprised to find that the serial comma is considered standard in the US but not in Britain. I have lived in the US all my life and I am certain that I was taught from elementary school straight though college that the serial comma was a no-no unless it was necessary for clarity.

    I am a supporter of not using it because it is the way I have always understood it should be, not because I think the British are always right (I can’t truck with anyone who puts an S everywhere a Z should be)

    There is another argument I have not seen mentioned yet. The comma is, hands down, the most abused punctuation there is. I find most writing suffers from overuse of the comma in all its forms rather than underuse. Comma overuse can interrupt flow and detract from clarity. To me this is the strongest argument against the serial comma or any other comma that doesn’t absolutely have to be there.

  • GreyLenswoman

    At school I was taught to swap out “and” in favour of “&” to make clear when two items in a list are paired, e.g. “breakfast consisted of coffee, eggs & bacon and toast”. This avoids the dilemma of the Oxford comma.

    Having said that, I go back to first principles whenever such a situation arises:
    * The purpose of language is communication.
    * The purpose of punctuation is to ensure clear communication.
    * The message is the point.

    So whether you favour the Oxford comma or not, sometimes, an exception is the best way to get the message across.

  • http://twitter.com/McGinnJack Jack McGinn

    I’m thrilled you posted this video, because the song was stuck in my head the entire time I read this post, looked at it, and read it. (Huh, see what did there…).

  • http://twitter.com/seonuts SEO Nut

    It warms the cockles of my British heart to see that, amidst all the LOLZ and the AFAIKs, there are people out there who still care about the where of a little ‘page tadpole’.  The one that usually causes me more pain, and at times confusion, is usually people’s misuse of her little floaty brother, the apostrophe.  For real-world SEO copy, that distinction can put you on page one, or sink you like an Oxford boat http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fibmgnPNpk.
    Down with Newspeak, long live the Oxford comma, and Burt Reynolds.

  • http://www.punctuation.org akra

    Well, the fools who want to eliminate the serial comma are the same folks you follow on the road who want to “decide” whether or not to use their turn signals.  You never know when you really need it and when you don’t so you might as well just use it all the time.

    Also, I suspect that the folks who crab about it the most are the ones who leave it out at the very time it should be put in to prevent a misreading.

    Putting it in routinely saves time. You don’t have to decide then.
    (Smirk.)

    akra

  • http://profiles.google.com/adriangould Adrian Gould

    #99, I believe : http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/05/12/99-grammar/

  • Utah

    Your gleeful adherence to the dreaded serial comma guarantees that I will never need to visit this blog again. Good day.

    I said good day!

  • F. Baptiste

    What Melissa Rach learned in Journalism school is a myth. The double space was not “eliminated” by early newspapers. The double space was invented in the early age of computers to imitate traditional typesetting on computers before the advent of variable-width font.

    It should go without saying that the idea that early newspapers “eliminated” the serial comma to save column space is also a complete myth.

    We like to believe myths like these because they are simple, make us feel like we understand something that is actually much more complicated, and reinforce our anger at those big-wig newspaper executives.

    Also, Kristina Halvorson has it backward concerning the serial comma making her a traitorous American. The serial comma is overwhelmingly the American English standard and is overwhelmingly opposed by British English standards. Even the OUP (an international publisher, hardly intended for a primarily British audience) credits their preference for the serial comma to American English hegemony.

  • Trebla Nhark

    Those who don’t understand why the comma is needed in a series should take a course in linguistics and then they might understand. The comma in a series separates recursive items. The “and” puts things together. Technically, it is the “and” that can be left out without affecting the meaning of the series, not the comma.

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