Who Gives a F*** About an Oxford Comma?

While the Vampire Weekend song that opens with the title of this article is extremely catchy, the answer to that question is that I do care about the Oxford comma. Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is what goes before the conjunction in a list of three or more things.

There is debate among sources of publications and grammar, however, on its use. The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, for which I copy edit, follows AP style, forcing me to step over my beliefs and take out those brave little Oxford commas every Wednesday night.

I am a firm believer that Oxford commas save lives and dignity. For example, it is what prevents cannibalism in the phrase “Let’s eat, Grandma.” When you have a party, there will be a huge difference between “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” and “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” 

Even if you just search “Oxford comma” on Google images, you will see the wonderfully illustrative proof invented by the Internet:

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 2.33.58 PM

So I thought that the support for the Oxford comma spoke for itself, and people were just being lazy or uneducated if they didn’t adhere to my grammatical religion. I then, however, stumbled across a wonderful Mental Floss article titled “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars,” which you can read here.

I read the first con, assuming it would either be ironic or simply inadequate. I, as it does sometimes happen, was wrong. The article cited:

“Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.” This example from the 1934 style book of the New York Herald Tribune shows how a comma before “and” can result in a lack of clarity. With the comma, it reads as if Mr. Smith was the donor of the cup, which he was not.

Believe it or not, sometimes even the glorified Oxford comma can contribute to linguistic confusion. After mulling this over, however, I think that this is one of the beautiful and individualizing aspects of language; while we use language as a way to communicate thoughts and feelings, language has an artistic level of agency inherent within it. Our diction, our syntax, and even our punctuation choices make our use of language our own artistic creation.

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