The ambiguous Oxford comma

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

Yes, the Oxford comma often removes or reduces ambiguity. That’s why I like it and tend to use it. But the key word here is often. The Oxford comma doesn’t always help. In fact, it can also increase ambiguity. Adding it can introduce ambiguity that didn’t exist before.

A recent article at the Oxford Dictionaries blog, on cultural appropriation, has this nice example:

Here’s the image, in case your OS doesn’t format the tweet to show it:

Use of the Oxford comma in this line means that the phrase a woman in a hijab can be parsed as a non-restrictive appositive referring to Kendall Jenner. That’s not how I interpreted it – I read the line as it was intended, with a woman in a hijab as item two in a three-item list, both because I was familiar with the story and because a woman in a hijab would be an improbable appositional phrase in the context.

The writing is fine. My point is that the Oxford comma increases its ambiguity.

It’s not about plausible semantics. A line beloved by Oxford-comma disciples, the apocryphal ‘This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God’, is really only ambiguous theoretically. Few (if any) people would genuinely misread it, given the implications. Ditto the infamous line about Nelson Mandela being an 800-year-old demigod (and maybe a dildo collector).

The Kendall Jenner = a woman in a hijab interpretation is more plausible than either of these.

Reordering the list often resolves the problem. But the ideological debate, such as it is, seldom hinges on real confusion; instead, it relies on the same few humorous and fantastical examples to persuade – or, more commonly, to preach to the choir of the rule-loving faithful. And because the middle ground needs its armoury of entertaining examples too, here are a couple:

As an editor and proofreader, I notice Oxford commas and I notice their absence. And guess what: the potential for confusion or ambiguity is nearly always negligible or non-existent. If it weren’t, the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style would not be recommending different approaches.

On balance, the serial comma reduces the potential for trouble. But it’s not a panacea, and writers and editors shouldn’t treat it as one. By all means favour the Oxford comma – or not, if that’s your house style or your editorial kink. But think of it as a convention, not a commandment from some mythical Platonic realm of pure clarity.

Language is messy, consisting of patterns with awkward exceptions. This is why you do a disservice to your readers – and to your brain – when you turn a stylistic preference into a rigid rule instead of exercising your judgement, imagination(,) and common sense.

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18 Responses to The ambiguous Oxford comma

  1. John Cowan says:

    Interesting that you choose American stylebooks. In North America there is really no debate: you always use it unless you are writing/editing for a newspaper, in which case you never do.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I chose AP and Chicago because they’re major, reputable authorities; and because, both being American, they make for a convenient comparison. (Also, most of this blog’s traffic comes from the US.) I don’t know about there being ‘no debate’: I see some on social media. But as I wrote above, it’s usually more about preaching to the converted.

  2. cynthiamvoss says:

    I learned AP style first, but had to use Chicago in my most recent job and I have to admit that I hated that Oxford comma at first. It went completely against my principles, I believed lol. But over time I’ve come around to see its usefulness, and I choose to use it in my daily life. I agree that language is messy and there’s always room for exceptions to any rule.

    Have you heard of this story about the trucking company that may owe its drivers millions in overtime because of confusion over a possible missing Oxford comma? I love the phrase “high-stakes grammar pedantry”! https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s good anecdata! It’s funny how attached we become to a certain style, to the point where we strongly resist an alternative – but then we come to accept that option very readily too. I’ve had a similar experience with other usages, e.g. singular data.

      The trucking company is an interesting case. I liked the thoughtful coverage at Wordorigins.org and Language Log.

      • cynthiamvoss says:

        I guess as an editor, when your job depends on your ability to make things right, it’s going to get personal. Why else would we internalize a particular set of rules and defend it so passionately? I’ve been out of the workforce for a few years, and I’m kind of laughing at myself right now for having cared maybe a little too much at times. That’s interesting about the trucking case, I didn’t know all of the details that the court reviewed.

  3. astraya says:

    A few days ago a Facebook friend posted an image+caption saying something to the effect of ‘I don’t trust people who don’t use the Oxford comma’. I don’t know what her motivation was. I replied that I don’t trust people who make value judgements based on punctuation choices. She didn’t reply.

  4. Craig says:

    The example is not a very well thought out sentence to begin with, but removing the Oxford comma doesn’t make it less ambiguous, but merely changes the ambiguity. It makes yet another incorrect interpretation possible: that Kendall Jenner is “a woman wrapped in (a hijab and vaguely positive protest imagery)”, that is, she is wrapped in both a hijab and protest imagery. The sentence could have been improved by the addition of a few words: “In early April, Pepsi ran a controversial advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner which also included a woman in a hijab and some vaguely positive protest imagery”. Isn’t that a little harder to misconstrue?

    • Stan Carey says:

      The word wrapped does not feature in the original line at all, so you may have misconstrued the degrees of ambiguity. Whatever about the plausibility of the phrase “a woman wrapped in … protest imagery”, the phrase “a woman in … protest imagery” scans less well, making this interpretation even less likely.

      But this is all beside the point I’m making, which is that turning the Oxford style into an article of blind faith is misguided. Reordering the elements or otherwise recasting the line often fixes the problem, but ultimately what’s needed is more thought and flexibility and less mechanical application of rules.

  5. Few (if any) people would genuinely misread it” strikes me as indicative of the real nature of the debate. When people cite the “Ayn Rand and God” example (among others) as part of a sincere argument for a stylistic choice they feel strongly about, the value they are advocating is clearly not “writers should avoid ambiguity”, but “writers should avoid unintentional humour”. I don’t think they care about ambiguity per se; in their eyes, it’s a minor sin compared to making the reader laugh out of turn.

    Your “woman in a hijab” example lacks the same punch, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that the correct reading is the most natural one. It’s sufficient to make the point that ambiguity exists, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to change any minds.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t think serial-comma devotees who cite the Ayn Rand etc. examples are concerned only (or perhaps even primarily) with avoiding unintentional humour, and hardly or not at all with ambiguity. I think they do care about ambiguity, but in choosing a memorable example to make their point, they weaken their argument because the example is so ludicrous.

  6. I have to wonder if readers who have no idea who Kendall Jenner is would have been confused. Kendall can be a male’s name. If one were to suppose Kendall Jenner is a male, would readers be tripped up by the sentence? Would it have been more confusing? I didn’t read the original article, so I wonder if the surrounding text would have helped make it more clear as to the people in question. Regardless, your main point is spot on–those who are fans of the Oxford comma do tend to use it based on “rules” and don’t always pay attention to whether it is actually needed.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it’s hard to read a line ‘fresh’, from the point of view of someone with different information, different biases, and so on. Your scare quotes around rules match my own tendency. People would do well to think of them instead as conventions or guidelines.

  7. […] Find out more about the ambiguous Oxford comma. […]

  8. […] Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible or dogmatic about it […]

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