The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

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.

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Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. 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.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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The Oxford, Harvard, or Serial Comma

June 30, 2011

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.

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