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.
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.
People often argue that the Oxford comma eliminates ambiguity. It can, but not always. This is why it makes sense, when 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 prefer the serial comma or its absence, but neither approach will suit every eventuality.
Unlike the Shatner comma.
Updates: 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”.
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.”