In Defense of the Oxford Comma
In life, as in grammar, there are many small but exceptionally valuable rules that help to garner reliability, shape, and succinct impact.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full” or “Think before you speak” can readily be translated to not writing run-on sentences or putting an appropriately-placed comma in that sentence to indicate a pause. The use of the Oxford Comma, however, is a rule that seems to be up for some debate.
It’s been widely discussed in style guides and grammar textbooks across the board since its inception in 1905. It’s been blogged about, researched, required, and tossed aside carelessly. Heck - it’s even been in a Vampire Weekend song, which, let’s face it, is the antithesis of any life worthy of being storied – even it if is the life of a piece of punctuation.
To this day, people find themselves unintentionally hot or cold about it, passively or actively implementing or dismissing it. Such a tiny thing – such a wide range of responses. While technically, it’s neither correct nor incorrect in and of itself, the Oxford Comma was created to give definition and boundary in text, helping to forge meaning in an otherwise amorphous sentence. And this, my fine friends, is the exact reason why it is so necessary.
The Oxford Comma is so named because of its origins with the Oxford University Press, where it was used by printers, readers, and editors regularly. It sometimes goes by the name “Serial Comma” or “Harvard Comma.” You’ll usually find it before the word “and” or the word “or” in a list of three or more items. Its entire purpose is to give structure and clarity to groups within a sentence.
“Clarity?” You might be thinking. “How does this small piece of type give any clarity? Isn’t that the job of the writer?” It’s an entirely valid question – until one thinks in the rhythm in which a sentence is meant to be read. Commas, in general, indicate a place to pause, and the existence of one particular category.
To read the sentence, “I invited my mother, the seamstress, and a giraffe to the party,” you undoubtedly adopted a cadence – the natural pulse created by the commas. That sentence, however, only makes sense with the brief and endemic placement of the Oxford Comma. Without it, my mother could be both the seamstress - and a giraffe.
Let’s look at a more practical example. “I was hoping to see the Speaker of the House, the Vice President, and the President at the State Dinner.” One adopts a natural flow when reading such a sentence, but again, acknowledging the natural rhythm created by the commas gives way to the undeniable reality that there are groupings happening throughout it. Without the Oxford Comma, the Speaker of the House suddenly becomes both the Vice President and the President – what an election year that must’ve been.
To say that the Oxford comma is a useless, frivolous, and unnecessary piece of grammar is like saying that the terms breakfast, lunch, and dinner should all bleed into one term – food time. They are unique, time appropriated, and segmented – they are not one in the same. For over 100 years, this exceptionally minute but powerful tool has been forging meaning out of nondescript and unclear places, allowing humanity to engage in shaping phrases without fear of being vague or worse, grossly misunderstood (i.e. my mother is a giraffe – and for the record, she is not). The Oxford Comma – removing ambiguity and purveying definition in an undefined and ambiguous world.