The Oxford Comma? – Actually, you’re all wrong

Thug: “You should always use the Oxford comma!”

Oaf: “No you shouldn’t!”

All right, all right, calm down lads. Don’t fall out over it, eh?

You might have heard this kind of altercation on “the streets”, as crazed grammar bandits spit their heated comma quarrels at each other with impunity.

But that’s not fair, is it? We don’t have to stand by as their wrath wafts over us, like a fog of fury, do we? No!

But what do we need to confront this dogmatic dispute? An opinion?

Actually, no – everyone you ever spoke to who had an opinion on the Oxford comma has been wrong. Dead wrong – yeah, that’s right: everyone.

“But Tim, how can that be?” I hear you ask, inaudibly. “Surely someone out there must have figured it out, right?”

Yeah!

<points thumbs at chest>

This guy.

But before we get on to that, let’s remind ourselves – and those unaware of grammar’s most divisive usage issue – what the Oxford comma actually is.

One, two, and three

Put simply, the Oxford comma is a seemingly superfluous comma at the end of a list that precedes the last object. So, for instance, the second of these sentences includes the comma in question:

The park has a swing, a bench and some trees.

The park has a swing, a bench, and some trees.

See that second comma? That particular mark hails from the Saxon town of Oxford. Both of those sentences are correct, yet pedants of a particular persuasion deem each of them separately wrong.

Misunderestimated

For advocates of this polarising punctuation, the Oxford comma is essential to avoid potential misunderstandings, which usually arise from the use of a plural in a list of things. Par example:

George Osborne likes to shit on the poor, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron.

“The poor” – being plural in this instance – might refer to the two leaders of the UK opposition, Messrs Corbyn and Farron, without the extra comma to divide them from the prior plural. However, we can separate the politicians with an Oxford comma to re-establish our meaning, thusly:

George Osborne likes to shit on the poor, Jeremy Corbyn, and Tim Farron.

Of course, this confusion can be easily avoided by shunting “the poor” to the end (typical, eh?) for the unambiguous and Oxford-comma-free sentence:

George Osborne likes to shit on Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and the poor.

So, now we get it, yes? Good. So what’s the problem?

Advocate THIS

The problem, friends, is blind advocacy. There are those who insist on its usage at all times and those who insist it is superfluous. But, dear reader, they’re both wrong.

In fact, the Oxford comma should be used to militate against misunderstanding, but it should not be used when it stunts a narrative’s rhythm.

You see – everyone was WRONG (while also being right a lot of the time – like the minute hand on a stopped clock).

Take our earlier example:

The park has a swing, a bench, and some trees.

To me, that second comma is like a single raised eyebrow. It says, yes, these three objects are common in parks: swings, benches… and trees. Now that you come to mention it, there’s definitely something about them trees…

Is there something… in those trees? Why else are they separate? What makes them so… other? Why did you pause – just for a millisecond, a near-unperceivable hesitation – before you mentioned those trees? What significance do they hold?

HOLY FUCK – TRIFFIDS

Grammar for grown-ups

We’re adults now; we are aware there is as much rhythm in prose as in poetry. And we understand that meaning can be inferred in the ebb and flow of a sentence, especially in its pauses. We know this, because we use pauses for emphasis, every, single, day.

Throwing in pauses at the behest of some silly rule, to the detriment of your narrative rhythm, is like looking suspiciously at every tree you see, in case just one of them turns out to be a deadly alien invader.

Treat the Oxford comma as a raised eyebrow, friends. It reveals otherness. It speaks in pauses, drawing hidden meaning from a twitch. It is at all times revealing, friendly, and suspicious.

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7 thoughts on “The Oxford Comma? – Actually, you’re all wrong”

  1. I found your article very interesting. I only got back into writing last August having been away from it for a couple of decades and was surprised to find how much grammar had changed, Sentences have got shorter for a start. Words have taken on new meanings, some that once were hyphenated have either become one word or have separated completely and then there’s the comma.
    When I first started reading flash fiction I was confused as to why so many commas were used. I began to think maybe the comma had evolved into something more, especially as so many people used so many. However, you’ve put my mind at rest, maybe you should cover the semicolon next. 🙂

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    1. As we all know, language is a constantly evolving eruption of ideas, and rules are important only in their effort to make sense of the chaos.

      I know this post was overly vociferous, but that was kind of the point: people shouting “Do one!” “Do the other!” is what I’m railing against, especially when no one seems to be shouting: “Do both!” Especially since this is one of the only rules that doesn’t require consistency at all; you can do both and the reader won’t be thrown. And that’s coming from a professional sub-editor, who gets PAID for consistency.

      PS: I frikkin’ love semicolons.

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    2. Also, regarding hyphenation, you might find this from the Guardian Style Guide interesting:

      Our style is to use one word wherever possible. Hyphens tend to clutter up text (particularly when the computer breaks already hyphenated words at the end of lines). This is a widespread trend in the language: “The transition from space to hyphen to close juxtaposition reflects the progressive institutionalisation of the compound,” as Rodney Huddleston puts it, in his inimitable pithy style, in his Introduction to the Grammar of English.

      Inventions, ideas and new concepts often begin life as two words, then become hyphenated, before finally becoming accepted as one word. Why wait? “Wire-less” and “down-stairs” were once hyphenated, and some old-fashioned souls still hyphenate e-mail.

      Words such as chatroom, frontbench, gameplan, housebuyer and standup are all one word in our publications, as are thinktank (not a tank that thinks), longlist (not necessarily a long list) and shortlist (which need not be short).

      There is no need to use hyphens with most compound adjectives, where the meaning is clear and unambiguous without: civil rights movement, financial services sector, work inspection powers, etc. Hyphens should, however, be used to form short compound adjectives, eg two-tonne vessel, three-year deal, 19th-century artist. Also use hyphens where not using one would be ambiguous, eg to distinguish “black-cab drivers come under attack” from “black cab-drivers come under attack”. A missing hyphen in a review of Chekhov’s Three Sisters led us to refer to “the servant abusing Natasha”, rather than “the servant-abusing Natasha”.

      Link: http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-h

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      1. Excellent! Given that the photo pretty fairly represents the action in the presidential race right now, as well as the skirmishes in the grammar wars, it was nice to read a reasonable analysis of a (somewhat) controversial topic! I realized that I use exactly your logic in deciding how to end a sentence. Is it confusing without the comma? Would a word order change fix it? Does adding a comma destroy the rhythm?

        Also, anyone who advocates that “It’s my language, I’ll use it the way I think is best.” will always get my vote (at least they will in the grammar debates).

        Another topic that might be fun to explore is the spotty application of Latin language rules to English. The data are in, indeed! “Romanes Eunt Domus”, I say.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha ha, yes indeed. To boldly go and split infinitives and all that. I might just do that.

        I think people forget that grammar is nothing but a way to express yourself in the clearest way possible. It’s not a chore to follow these rules, nor is it advisable to adhere to them without question. You choose what to use in order to get your intended message across, which might be ambiguity, or double entendre, or metaphor, or rhythm in speech. Those are the things English is so adept at. And that’s why it’s one of the best languages in the world!

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