Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Oxford Comma

My newest punctuation pet peeve is the Oxford comma, aka the "serial comma."

This comma is used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (usually and or or ) that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items. For instance: Food at the party included pizza, pancakes, pickles, and pop. The red comma is the Oxford comma.

Surprisingly, there is a vigorous debate about the appropriateness of this comma. I love it. I don't understand why there's a debate. I think it significantly reduces confusion. Say, for example, I wrote this dedication in my newly published bestseller:

To my dear parents, Bobbie Jo and Buddha

You would likely be led to believe that my parents were named Bobbie Jo and Buddha. However, if I wrote:

To my dear parents, Bobbie Jo, and Buddha.

You would realize I was dedicating my book to my dear parents, to someone named Bobbie Jo, and to Buddha. The opposing argument says that in the same circumstance, the Oxford comma causes confusion by serving a parenthetical function:

To my husband, the pool boy, and Cupid

Some people would argue that this sentence implies that my husband is actually the pool boy, and if you substitute the commas with parentheses, you'll see why:

To my husband (the pool boy) and Cupid

However, in reality, the Oxford comma shows that I am instead dedicating my second bestseller to my husband, to the pool boy, and to Cupid - 3 separate people.

I think it would be easy to clear up this ambiguity by simply using parentheses instead of commas when indeed our intention is parenthetical.

The Oxford comma, in balance, provides much more clarification than ambiguity. I can't tell you how many times, when at work editing medical document, I have to add commas in order to clarify a sentence, especially in lists of medication. There are circumstances that can significantly impact patient care just be leaving out a single comma.

Therefore, I'm a fan of the Oxford comma. I encourage all of you writers out there to consider your use or rejection of the Oxford comma as you write your bestsellers, blogs, or journals!


Fran said...

Didn't know what it was called, but I've always used it. Anything for clarity's sake.

MilesPerHour said...

I can't even think about what I'm gonna, write about, in my next post. mUch less, punCtuation:

Seriously, I must be old cuz I don.t remember that that comma had a name.

Suldog said...

I tend to use it, although it depends upon the clarity I'm seeking.

alana said...

This is one of those arguments that started as a joke, but gets brought up again over too many cups of coffee. I guess it beats our Deathstar vs. Enterprise debate (yes, we’re that nerdy lol).

I love it myself.

alana said...

I’m ashamed to admit we have an ongoing argument over who would win in a fight, the Deathstar from Star Wars or the Enterprise from Star Trek. lol

Our group is split 50/50 on each side.

writtenexpressions said...

I tend not to use it, but do see that there are times when it is necessary for clarity.

Small Footprints said...

I totally agree with you. I'm a fan and use it all the time. There is nothing confusing about it! :)

Small Footprints