The Oxford, Harvard, or Serial Comma

That’s the comma that sometimes appears just before the coordinating conjunction (normally and or or) near the end of a list of three or more items. There’s one in the title of this post. It became known as the Oxford comma because “for a century it has been part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently”.

Its omission often makes little difference (“We offer tea, coffee and orange juice”), but ambiguity arises easily (“At Jim’s house I met Jo, a student and an artist”). An almighty fuss broke out among writers and editors on Twitter this week when it emerged that a style guide for University of Oxford staff advises against using the Oxford comma, except where it “would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity”.

Mark Allen pointed out that the page in question was last updated in 2009, but it seemed to have slipped under the collective editorial radar until lately. Some people thought that Oxford University Press, or even the Oxford Manual of Style, were abolishing their eponymous mark. Not so.

Yet there was much gnashing of teeth, wailing and flailing, and references to “cold, dead hands”. I saw an astonishing number of people mourning the “death” of the Oxford comma.

Even in jest, the reactions seemed pretty extreme and obsessive to me. It was a bit weird on Twitter for a while. I made my own bad joke about it (see below), and left a comment on Galleycat to stress that it’s just a style suggestion, not a commandment, and that unless you’re working to a house style that discourages its use, you can go on using it whenever you want.

For what it’s worth, I like the Oxford comma and I tend to use it. Not always, but I would be consistent in a given text. I wouldn’t edit it into someone’s writing if they had a clear preference for doing without it. Unless of course an ambiguity required its inclusion.

Take for example the well-known (though unverified) “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, and this (verified) gem referring to a documentary about the singer Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Best of all is the following beauty reportedly printed in The Times, describing a documentary called Planet Ustinov:

By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

This is, by some margin, my all-time favourite example of an absent serial comma. Obviously, these absurd sentences have no real ambiguity – just grammatical – but they serve to draw attention to the potential for ambiguity in more everyday cases. And the thing is, inserting an Oxford comma after demigod would introduce a different ambiguity, albeit equally unlikely to be taken at face value:

encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.

This could imply that Mandela, though not a dildo collector, is in fact an 800-year-old demigod – because the two commas might frame an appositive. Nor does it remove the original ambiguity; it just reduces it. So it’s still grammatically ambiguous, and slightly less funny.

Recasting the elements, e.g. by putting Mandela at the end of the list, would solve this problem. But it would not do to reorder the names in, say, a personal dedication. Even one to Ayn Rand.

Quite a few style guides advocate the mandatory use of a serial comma; some don’t. Wikipedia has a helpful summary. Gabe Doyle, ever the level head, calls the whole business a batrachomyomachia – literally a battle between frogs and mice, better known as a storm in a tea cup. I’m letting the tea settle. No stirring necessary.

Some people reacting to this non-story, including someone replying to my comment at Galleycat, said that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity. It often does, but not always.

This is why it makes sense, when you’re writing or editing, to keep your wits about you and judge each case on its merits instead of relying on absolute “rules”. There is no Ultimate Solution. You may indulge your preference for a serial comma or for its absence, but neither approach will suit every eventuality.

Unlike the Shatner comma.

.

Update: Eoin O’Dell at cearta.ie has written a thoughtful post on the matter, taking a close look at some of the ways the serial comma’s use or omission can alter or obscure understanding, and showing how in some situations insistence upon it “is not a matter of pretention or pedantry, but of accuracy and necessity”.

I might add more links here as I come across them.

Here’s one. David Marsh, editor of the Guardian style guide, takes a wry look at the panic and furore over the mark’s imaginary demise, and writes some kind words about this blog. He concludes that “it’s as unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one. The best rule is common sense.” Amen to that.

At the Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer reports on a panel discussion celebrating a century of the Chicago Manual of Style. Though he favours the serial comma, he “dispute[s] the idea that it is any clearer or more logical than the competing style”, and agrees that “the inclusion of the serial comma could conceivably be a source of ambiguity.”

31 Responses to The Oxford, Harvard, or Serial Comma

  1. John Cowan says:

    Well, of course you are right. But I cling to the serial comma like grim death myself. (According to my Yank notions, Brits under-punctuate massively.)

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    How many angels ARE there on the head of a pin? The whole foo-fa-raw reminds me of dissecting the Talmud and the mad hair-splitting of the scholastics. Of course we should use good sense when we write a sentence and punctuate it. As a working journalist, I followed AP style because it was there – not because it was written in stone.

  3. For those who might miss the significance of “batrachomyomachia”, the reference is to an ancient Greek poem in the epic style of Homer relating just such a battle. An older text and translation maybe be found at http://www.archive.org/stream/hesiodhomerichym00hesi#page/542/mode/2up

  4. Stan says:

    Katy: Glad you liked it, and thanks for reading.

    John: I’m fond of the serial comma too, though I picked it up late (not having been taught it). But the passions and near-panic I witnessed during the week struck me as in need of tempering.

    Marc: A foofaraw is a good word for it. You’re right: it’s about common sense. Unfortunately, too often I see writing advice of one form or another fetishised then elevated to dogma. Anyone would think we humans enjoy pointless arguments…

    Terrence: Thanks very much, that’s a helpful link.

  5. bramsey says:

    Interesting….I was taught not to use this comma, but since I now work in an educational environment, I have been forced to change…..English instructors are rather fond of it!

  6. Craig says:

    Pick whatever convention you like but be consistent. If a serial comma is required to eliminate ambiguity, smash your consistency to smithereens.

  7. Gabe says:

    Great piece as always, Stan. I don’t know if I woke up on the wrong side of the bed or what, but I want to scream at the next person who moans about how omitting the comma introduces ambiguity but doesn’t notice that including it can introduce ambiguity just as well. (As in “my father, God, and Ayn Rand”.) Only a few hours to go before it’s the weekend here; let’s see if I can make it.

  8. Gah what on earth is the point of getting worked up over the use of a comma which, if used sensibly, can prevent ambiguity. As Borges would have put it, a case of bald men fighting over a comb….

  9. Stan says:

    bramsey: It has advocates and decliners, others who don’t commit either way, and a whole lot more who aren’t aware of the debate. On the whole, it’s a useful device – but not at the expense of flexibility.

    Craig: In formal writing, consistency matters; in casual text, not so much. As I’ve shown in the post, ambiguity isn’t always easily resolved. And sometimes ambiguity is intentional.

    Gabe: I guess a lot of people like their rules simple and memorable, and are impatient with (or uninterested in) qualifications and complexifications. I loved your post on this, which I re-read after I’d written the bulk of mine – at which point I cursed you gently for pipping me to the post-title format. Don’t scream at anyone. It ain’t worth it!

    Jams: It can often reduce ambiguity, but it’s not the panacea it’s occasionally made out to be. Even a fight between bald men over a comb would pale beside a fight between editors over a comma!

  10. docum3nt says:

    I started using the serial comma when I began writing documents that Americans would read, because they would query its omission. Since then I have found that its presence helps comprehension, rather than hinders it, so I keep on using it. But I check style guides, and if I am writing for a publication that doesn’t use it, I just leave it out.

  11. Stan says:

    Adjusting to different audiences and requirements is a sensible approach, docum3nt. I have little patience for the strange partisanship that attaches to these grey-area matters of style.

  12. Simon Curtis says:

    I am an advocate, supporter and lover of common sense, but, when it comes to commas, I really, really, love to pop them in all over the place, as long as they don’t hinder the flow of the language, of course.

  13. seventydys says:

    A comma is but a toothless comb…but, seriously, an excellent piece.

    Punctuation is, of course, there to facilitate clarity in direct meaning but it’s worth keeping in mind that a great deal of the indirect meaning of good prose is carried by rhythm and here the flexible, but consistent, use of the comma – including the serial comma – adds to the range of expressiveness of written language.

    Good writers and editors help us be with each other in language, while language militancy, oftentimes, tends to serve solitary purposes.

  14. Hoover says:

    I would like to see more use of the German comma in English.

    It introduces an incredibly portentous hesitation and adds high drama to the most commonplace activities and thoughts.

    The phrase “Ich denke, dass ich hier bleibe” would translate as “I think… that I will stay here”.

    See how it adds a layer of authority and deep reflection to an otherwise banal statement?

    Truly, the German comma a sword in the hands of a skilled craftsman is.

  15. Stan says:

    Simon: Whether a comma stymies flow is in many instances subjective. If I were to edit prose with as many commas as appear in, say, Dickens (but without his command of the language), I would be tempted to remove a few!

    seventydys: Well said. Different styles satisfy and suit different writers; a balance of flexibility and consistency is important. Language militancy, I think, is generally more about feeling superior or finding a scapegoat for frustration than it is about communicating clearly.

    Hoover: I like that German comma. It doesn’t have the same effect at all in English: “I think, that I will stay here.” Maybe a dash would come closest: “I think – that I will stay here.”

  16. [...] a piece dissecting the provocative punctuation mark, blogger Stan Carey provides a rather interesting example of the awkward confusion that can be caused by the deletion of the Oxfo…. Here’s a hint: it involves Nelson Mandela, 800-year-old demigods, and a collection of devices [...]

  17. Ken says:

    Why would recasting the elements solve it?

  18. Stan says:

    Ken: Reordering the list (“encounters with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector, and Nelson Mandela”) solves the problem in this case because it removes or at least minimises the ambiguity.

  19. tulip says:

    This refers to the analysis of the following sentence:

    By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

    There’s more to it than meets the eye……

    The fact that the sentence begins with ‘by’ suggests an inversion which shows that the sentence is in passive form.

    I think the sentence could have been framed in the active voice itself as shown below.

    ‘Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago as he travels by train, plane and sedan chair. His global tour highlights his encounters with Nelson Mandela and two others;an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.’

    goldentulip

  20. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, goldentulip – I appreciate the thought you’ve put into your suggestion. However, the sentence you’ve quoted is already in the active voice (“Ustinov retraces…”).

    …made by Mark Twain is a passive construction, but it’s in a subordinate clause. The opening words (“By train…”) are an adjective phrase, probably placed before the subject to avoid confusion with Twain’s journey and the by that comes later in the sentence.

    So I don’t think your rewrite is an improvement, and you’ve also misused a semicolon. (Edit: a colon would be grammatically fine instead of that semicolon, but phrasing it that way would suggest that Ustinov met just three people.)

  21. [...] controversy, in June there was much uproar over the apparent deletion of the Oxford comma, which Stan Carey had some fun with. However, it turned out the beloved punctuation mark was alive and well, much to [...]

  22. [...] crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news [...]

  23. [...] and he has also banned Oxford commas and text abbreviations. All of them. Banning [...]

  24. Kilimanjaro says:

    @Stan on @tulip

    The fact that the sentence begins with ‘by’ suggests an inversion which shows that the sentence is in passive form.

    There’s a chance that this sentence is a parody.

  25. Stan says:

    Kilimanjaro: There is, but I don’t think so.

  26. nothankyou says:

    How about: this book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God. Is Ayn Rand my mother or not? If I use the Oxford comma then this sentence could be read either as a list of three people, or as a list of two people, my mother and God, one of whom happens to be Ayn Rand.

  27. […] variant. Whom is on the way out in most contexts. Dangling participles aren’t so bad. The Oxford comma is just a style preference. Abbreviating words as single letters is fine in texting or very […]

  28. […] anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known […]

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