Unconfusing the Confusing: Meet the Brilliant Oxford Comma!


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THE PROBLEM. Over the years I have learned some strange and seemingly impossible things from students, friends, relatives, and folks I don’t know. I have always thought of myself as a rational person, one who could look behind the mystery and mystique to discover why X was a mystery and how Y earned its mystique. Yet these “impossible things” still puzzled me and slapped all portions of pragmatism from my mind: my sister enjoying sandwiches of beets and ice cream . . . a student whose parents were Bob Dylan and Michelle Obama . . . a colleague whose hobby appears to be cooking tropical fish and parakeets . . . a neighbor who believes the Queen of England is 600 years old and is a camel . . . a best friend whose doctoral professors included a homeless man and clowns . . . a former work buddy who was at a party where he saw his two ex-wives: Cher and Jane Fonda. But finally these seemingly crazy pairings and “you gotta be kidding me!” items all fell into the realm of normal, of understandable, of making sense: that beautiful, wondrous, nearly magical Oxford comma had been missing in their statements! I was immediately reintroduced to just how important specificity is to the written word.

THE HISTORY. A little bit of explanation and history first. The Oxford comma is the comma inserted before the conjunction (such as and, or, and but) after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items. An example would be, “He bought three oranges, two apples, and five onions.” Here, the comma before “and” would be the Oxford comma. And why is it called “the Oxford comma”? It was first introduced in 1905 in the Oxford University Press style guide, formally known as the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary, authored by F. H. Collins (who said he had inspiration for this comma from the Victorian scientist and philosopher Herbert Spencer). Also sometimes known as a “serial comma” or “Harvard comma” (the name comes because Harvard University ardently supported its use while newspapers in the early 20th-century America denounced it), inserting it into a sentence can “unconfuse” the confusion. Going back to my first paragraph can explain this.

THE NON-OXFORD COMMA EXAMPLES. Here are the sentences that made me scratch my head and roll my eyes:

  • “Errol, for lunch I had a sandwich, beets and ice cream.” (It does appear beets and ice cream were the innards of my sister’s sandwich.)
  • “On my bedroom wall I have a picture of my parents, Bob Dylan and Michelle Obama.” (It sure seems like that was one picture of the student’s parents: Dylan and Obama.)
  • “As long as we are discussing hobbies, mine include cooking, tropical fish and parakeets.” (That is one weird hobby–cooking her tropical fish and parakeets.)
  • “It was a great trip! I saw the Queen of England, a 600-year-old relic and a camel.” (I know the Queen of England is old, but not 600 years old–and to my knowledge she has never been referred to as a “camel.”)
  • “Errol, I had a nice mix at my retirement party: two of my former doctoral professors, a homeless man and clowns.” (Everyone has something to teach, true, but this certainly was an unusual mix.)
  • “I tell you, it was crazy at this Hollywood bar: I saw my two ex-wives, Cher and Jane Fonda!” (Now, that would be some pedigree of ex-wives.)

THE WITH-THE-OXFORD-COMMA EXAMPLES. Enter the Oxford comma, and now each of those sentences made sense:

  • “Errol, for lunch I had a sandwich, beets, and ice cream.”
  • “On my bedroom wall I have a picture of my parents, Bob Dylan, and Michelle Obama
  • “As long as we are discussing hobbies, mine include cooking, tropical fish, and parakeets.”
  • “It was a great trip! I saw the Queen of England, a 600-year-old relic, and a camel.”
  • “Errol, I had a nice mix at my retirement party: two of my former doctoral professors, a homeless man, and clowns.”
  • “I tell you, it was crazy at this Hollywood bar: I saw my two ex-wives, Cher, and Jane Fonda!”

THE DEBATE. Make no mistake: there is controversy and ongoing debate about inclusion of the Oxford comma. Many style guides support its use, including APA, MLA, and The Chicago Manual of Style, while the Associated Press Stylebook, The Canadian Press Stylebook, and most British press style guides vote against it. And national, in-your-face support for use of the Oxford comma came in 2017 when a lawsuit was filed for 75 truck drivers, arguing that language in a Maine state law made it unclear if drivers were or were not to receive overtime pay–all because an Oxford comma was left out. The result was a $5 million settlement in favor of the drivers!

THE BOTTOM LINE. For our students, clarity and specificity in their writing are paramount, and thus the Oxford comma becomes a necessity. Certainly, there are instances when the Oxford comma need not be used; the test for this is to use the non-Oxford comma examples I gave: is the sentence confusing, ambiguous, and muddied without the Oxford comma? If yes do use it, but if no it can be left out. However, consistency is important, so my money says–always use the Oxford comma. Professors won’t say “huh?” and there will be no $5 million lawsuit settlements! And it’s one less item to explain when grading assignments. 🙂

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