Oxford comma (also known as the "serial comma" or "Harvard comma") is the name given to the optional final comma in a series. In the phrase "ham, egg, and chips" it's the comma between "egg" and "and". Entirely optional - correct punctuation neither demands nor requires it. And like everything that is optional, it has its adherents and its detractors, and, of course, there is also the vast majority of English speakers who don't care one way or another.
This essay examines why the Oxford comma or was invented, then refutes the arguments of those who religiously use it, and recommends that any writer who understands what he writes has no need to make its use mandatory.
- Case for the Oxford comma
The main argument, that of the Oxford comma's adherents, is that using a comma just before the final "and" or "or" of a series in some cases eliminates ambiguity. This is true, and should be so obvious that we need not delay ourselves with examples. But then lists can be difficult to write, particularly long ones. It is easy to confuse the reader, so a careful writer will always take special care with them. Indeed, some writers use semi-colons instead of commas, or, more frequently, a mixture of semi-colons and commas, so that more convoluted ideas can be expressed. Others may use dashes or even rewrite the list as a set of numbered points.
The classic example given by adherents of the Oxford comma is to ask the reader to note the ambiguity in the sentence "I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God". They then favour the sentence "I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God" and point out that the writer professes no exceptional parentage in the latter. (Of course, it probably helps to be American and to know who Ayn Rand is to fully appreciate the joke.) But it is true, ambiguity (in this case not true ambiguity, but instead unintentional hilarity) is avoided by careful use of the comma.
The adherents then go on to say that because the Oxford comma sometimes eliminates ambiguity it ought always be used. It's a case of consistency. And what's wrong with that? It's neat, and using Oxford commas in all lists necessarily means that unintentional meanings do not slip in and detract the reader.
The main case against using the Oxford comma is that it suggests to the reader an upcoming 2nd part to a compound sentence. However, with series becoming more complex, the Oxford comma eliminates ambiguity when contractions are used in longer series. And then there's, "what's the point?" Of course, where there is ambiguity or clarification is required, a comma should be used. The European Union's English style guide gives the example "...sugar, beef and veal, and milk products", which is clearly preferable to "...sugar, beef and veal and milk products". Those who don't use Oxford commas have no objection to this.
But what about where there is no ambiguity, or when no clarification is required? This is true for the overwhelming majority of lists. Why require a comma then? It conveys nothing to the reader. If anything, maybe it can confuse - after all, all other commas in a list could be replaced by "and" or "or". The Oxford comma cannot be so replaced.
And remember, whatever the adherents say, those who merrily go about their way not using Oxford commas do not end up in a mire of confusion (although their readers might). The overwhelming majority of English writers outside North America go about their day not using the construct - and happily understand each other and do not go round in fits of laughter as a result of unintentional humour arising from the lack of the comma.
However, the last paragraph is not the main thrust of the opposition. Adherents and opponents of the Oxford comma agree that care needs to be taken with lists. That is not really the point. The opponents of the Oxford comma take the former approach. Why add a punctuation mark where one is not needed?
Purpose of punctuationEdit
Before we proceed further in our discussion of the merits and demerits of the comma, we should step back a bit. We had to explain what an Oxford comma is first so readers knew what we were talking about. And that explanation had to include the answer to "Why should it be used"? But to really understand what its function is, we first need to analyse what the purpose of punctuation is.
Remember, when writing was invented, punctuation was nowhere to be seen. Hieroglyphs had no punctuation. On written Ancient Greek tablets, it is often difficult for a novice reader to work out where one word ends and the other begins, because there are no gaps between them. And of course there was nothing so straightforward as a full stop to tell readers when one sentence ends and another begins. A modern reader will see such things and think "Help!" And so will discover the first main purpose of punctuation - to help the reader.
With our modern panoply of punctuation habits, the reader can be great assistance - sentences end in full stops, and begin with capital letters; we have paragraphs, maybe chapters too; and our prose is beautifully set out, maybe justified, and annotated with commas, semi-colons, colon, points, dashes, question marks and exclamation marks. OK, formal punctuation is not perfect - it does not allow us to convey tone, which is why emoticons, those little smiley faces, are often seen in informal internet and text messaging chat. But our formal punctuation rules do offer much useful aid to the reader - if you don't believe this, try writing without it - seehoweasyitistounderstandwhatisgoingon.
The second purpose of punctuation is that it can be used to convey information. A writer, if he so wants, can quite easily, I think, pause, elongate, and delay a reader, if he so chooses. Conversely a writer may speed a reader up and take the reader at pace through a number of ideas that are quickly expressed and that flow freely. It's not quite possible to convey tone, but some concepts are possible.
Some writers are better at this than others; not every writer makes full usage of the punctuation available. Nowadays many eschew the semi-colon. So far, a reader of this page will not have seen a colon in sight: perhaps a trick has been missed. But question marks and exclamation marks and dashes have all made an appearance. No hyphens - but they're rather special sort of marks that live in a limited world. Apostrophes appear often. The whole armoury of punctuation has not been employed, but you, my reader, have been taken down a path planned by me. I choose what I want to stress. When I wish to be emphatic! Or not.
So these are the two main purposes of punctuation. One with the reader in mind, one with the writer: the reader is helped, but controlled by the writer. Every gap, capital letter, comma, semi-colon, full stop or whatever has a purpose. Ask me about any punctuation in this article, and you will find a ready answer.
Changes in styleEdit
So punctuation has two purposes - to help the reader and to convey to the reader how to read what is written. However, this doesn't mean that punctuation habits have been static. Just as language itself changes, so do punctuation habits. Information that was once thought useful to give, no longer seems so useful. I well remember being taught to write an address as:
- 13, Anyroad,
But I would now write this as:
- 13 Anyroad
The reader is no longer helped to follow the address by splitting it into its constituent parts with commas. However, neither is the reader confused. And, outside of North America, which is very conservative with its language, there is a strong tendency towards minimising punctuation. That does not mean eliminating punctuation, but it does mean not adding more punctuation than is strictly necessary to convey information. Perhaps this is better conveyed by way of example - see which of the two looks better to you now:
- The Boxing day audience assembled to witness Lord Harris's team play their first match in Victoria numbered 10,000 at least. The weather was fine, and the wickets in magnificent run getting order, as may be imaged from the fact that when, after three days of cricket, the match was drawn, there had been only three innings played for the 858 runs scored. The Victorians won choice, and began the batting. Four wickets had fallen for 51 runs, when Mr. Donald Campbell (of the Oxford University Elevens of 1874, '75, and '76) commenced his finely hit three figure innings of 128 runs - an innings that one journalist stated was "played without a chance," and another that it "comprised hits for thirteen 4's and eleven 3's." Mr. Campbell was eleventh man out, the score at 279; he was enthusiastically cheered by all on the ground. That day's cricket ended with the Victorians having lost 12 wickets and scored 288 runs.
- Seventeen wickets fell on the first day, though pitch liaison officer Raman Subba Row gave an old strip qualified approval. Taylor decided to bat but was one of four early wickets, three lbw. Gloucestershire limped to their lowest Championship total of 2004 before Averis dismissed the Sussex top four. The ball still swung and seamed after a blank second day: last pair Kirtley and Lewry claimed a slender 21-run lead, with 50 in eight overs, and were denied a batting point only by a catch to tell your grandchildren about - Hussey diving full stretch in the deep after a long chase. Spearman showed the pitch could be mastered, with seven fours and a six in his eighth half-century of the season. Gloucestershire resisted setting a target; flirting with relegation, they wanted to be sure of a draw and also faced penalty points for a slow over-rate - a regulation applying only once they had bowled for four hours or more in the match. So they batted on until lashing rain ended play on the final afternoon.
Both these are unremarkable pieces in themselves: they were chosen for this reason. But they were also chosen because they were from the same annual publication, Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack. The first passage is from the 1880 edition, the second is from the 2005 edition. But the way they are punctuated is significantly different. The second excerpt is slightly longer and contains 20 pieces of punctuation. Noticeably this includes two dashes - punctuation marks that were certainly used in the past, but which have become much much more popular in recent years. The first passage contains 34 pieces of punctuation.
Much of this punctuation would not be used in modern-day Britain. The point after Mr. may be omitted nowadays (though the tendency would be to omit the mister altogether). Instead of writing 4's and 3's, the forms fours and threes. The double quotation marks are more likely to be single puncutation marks, and the final punctuation marks would come outside the quotation marks not inside it. More likely than not, the Oxford comma would be omitted. In fact, the passage is far more likely to be rendered thus:
- The Boxing Day audience assembled to witness Lord Harris's team play their first match in Victoria numbered 10,000 at least. The weather was fine, and the wickets in magnificent run getting order. As may be imaged from the fact that when, after three days of cricket, the match was drawn, there had been only three innings played for the 858 runs scored. The Victorians won choice and began the batting. Four wickets had fallen for 51 runs, when Donald Campbell (of the Oxford University Elevens of 1874 to 1876) commenced his finely hit three figure innings of 128 runs - an innings that one journalist stated was 'played without a chance', and another that it 'comprised hits for thirteen fours and eleven threes'. Campbell was eleventh man out when the score was 279. He was enthusiastically cheered by all on the ground. That day's cricket ended with the Victorians having lost 12 wickets and scored 288 runs.
The differences in punctuation may be subtle, but are most definitely there. The new version has only 24 punctuation marks - and most likely the words themselves would have been different in 2005, and different in a way that means less punctuation was needed.
Of course, this tendency towards less punctuation, and different punctuation, is not universal within the English-speaking world. Some of the changes may surprise someone from North America. Americans are more likely to be happier with the original. The Oxford comma, the double quotation marks, and in particular the habit of including final punctuation marks within quotation marks, are all commonly used in North America. Meanwhile, someone outside North America is likely to be surprised to learn that what is nowadays considered to be North American-style punctuation was widespread everywhere in the past. Our quotations are 125 years apart, but the same effect could have been obtained by using many a pre-World War II text.
Conversely we can analyse the second text and see what punctuation may have been there had it been written in 1880. In the second sentence, could we not have a comma before but? Maybe then a comma before before. What about that last sentence, should that not have been attached to the penultimate one? Of course, just as we have to guess how the 1880 piece would be punctuated if it had been written in 2005, similarly we have to guess how the 2005 would have been punctuated had it been written in 1880. But one thing is certain - it would have been different; and part of that difference is that in 2005 there would be less punctuation. Or at least outside North America there would be less punctuation: North American punctuation remains close to what would be considered pre-Second World War punctuation elsewhere in the world.
Back to purposeEdit
Before we progress, we have a circle to square. We've said that the purpose of punctuation is either to help the reader or to enable the writer to convey information on style to the reader. We've also said that punctuation habits, at least outside North America, have changed over the last 70 or so years - with less and less punctuation being used. Are these statements not inconsistent?
This circle can be squared, and without the help of Galois theory either. The first point to consider is how much help does the reader need. possiblynonebutif werebeingpracticalweacceptthatsomehelpisnormallyrequired
But the answer is, really, honestly, the reader does not need too much help. Consider text messages, which frequently do not have vowels, let alone punctuation. These are commonly understood, are they not? The reality is that the reader needs little punctuation. Idened sutdeis hvae shwon taht as lnog as the frsit and lsat ltteers of wrods are crorcet the bairn can srot out the ohter ltteres and tlel us waht is atcaully benig conyeved.
But just as it speeds up and assists your reading to have words spelt out as they should be spelt out, so it speeds up and assists if a passage is well punctuated. Punctuation is not necessary, but it can help. The only thing that has changed over the years is the view of how much help the reader needs. Perhaps in the nineteenth century they were more patrician, but certainly in the twenty-first century the tendency is to tread carefully, to be on the light side.
And by saying "on the light side" I do not mean just volume - but also emphasis. I could have used a strong colon before saying "to be on the light side", but instead chose a weak comma. My approach is a product of the times. After all, tempora mutant et nos mutantur in illis (times change and we change in them). Nowadays exclamation marks are rare; where often there would be a colon there is a comma; the semi-colon is eschewed completely by many, but not this, writer.
The modern approach (outside of North America) is that the reader needs less help. It is true, always, that where the writer wishes, for whatever reason, to convey a message, maybe to slow down, the punctuation will be there. But the approach towards the reader is that it is OK to have less punctuation. At least outside of North America.
This discussion would not be complete, however, without a note about why there have been changes as to whether quotation marks should be single or double, or whether punctuation should be included inside or outside quotation marks. Nor would it be complete without a digression on why in the past colons and semi-colons tended to have a space before as well as after them, but nowadays they do not. We are onto the subject of aesthetics.
What place does aesthetics have in the world of punctuation? To the extent that they help the reader, they are common. Justified text is pleasing to look at and helps make prose easier to read. However, that's as far as it goes - and it's not, in its strictest sense punctuation. Every real form of punctuation is there either to help the reader or to convey a message to the reader.
That's not to say that aesthetics has no other say in punctuation. It's just that everything else on the aesthetic front is taking punctuation that would be there anyway and making it pretty. This could be the habit some publishers have of having two spaces rather than one after a full stop. It is also the habit, now only regarded as acceptable in North America, where the final full stop, semi-colon, colon, exclamation mark or punctuation mark always goes within the final quotation mark. It is also the habit, now extinct, of having a space before a semi-colon or colon.
So we are left with the conclusion that aesthetics can alter how punctuation is presented, but that no punctuation is used purely for aesthetic reasons. Applying this to the present instance of the Oxford comma is straightforward: there can be no truck with any argument that it is needed for aesthetic reasons.
We should not probably allow ourselves a long aside on North America because its punctuation rules are so different from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. They basically haven't changed since the nineteenth century, when there were essentially no national differences on punctuation. Everywhere else from about the mid-twentieth century onwards has changed, with the habit very much being towards having less punctuation. Double quotation marks have become single, commas that once would be thought of as mandatory are now omitted, points after abbreviations like Dr. and Mr. and Mrs. or after initials disappear, and punctuation is normally found outside quotation marks rather than inside them (adopting a logical rather than aesthetic style).
Part of the reason for this is how English is taught to children. In the US this is done much more formally than elsewhere. Indeed, many British children have had little schooling in punctuation. So finer points of punctuation have gone - and simpler, easier to understand habits have taken their place; many people think that a comma is used only if there is a pause - strictly speaking this is incorrect, but those who use that "rule" really won't go far wrong.
The lack of formal schooling has allowed for more flexibility. Children are not chastised if some necessary commas are omitted. And through practice these once-necessary commas become optional and rarely used.
At the same time, writing styles have changed. They are more chatty - and certainly more linear with fewer subordinate and parenthetical clauses. This style needs less punctuation. There's no longer any need to punctuate to avoid all the ambiguity of poorly written, unnecessarily complicated clauses. There is a tradition punctuation test given to British schoolchildren in the now dim and distant past. They are asked to punctuate the following sentence:
- Frank I walked and talked half an hour after his body was cut off.
The answer was:
- Frank I walked and talked; half an hour after, his body was cut off.
The sentence now makes sense - but what a sentence! It's not well written, is it? Punctuation allows us to make sense of it, but does not make the sentence a good one. It would surely be better to recast it completely as:
- Frank I walked and talked. His body was cut off half an hour afterwards.
And that, outside South America, is not the modern style.
What message does the Oxford comma give?Edit
We've digressed far. However, without a discussion of what punctuation is for, and what modern trends in punctuation are, we would have no context in which to place the Oxford comma. We can now analyse it in more detail.
We said the first purpose of punctuation is to help the reader. But the Oxford comma does not help the reader. After all, it's optional!
So does it convey information to the reader? Well, again, the answer is no. Those who propound usage of the Oxford comma make it mandatory. British English writers for the Oxford University Press often have to keep reminding themselves to use it. Think about that - the writer is saying that I do not want a comma - it conveys nothing. The reader does not need it to understand the prose. Why put it there?
Which takes us back to the argument that it should be included because there are instances where it would be ambiguous to do otherwise. Of course, that's only a reason for including it when the ambiguity exists. However, the adherents make the comma mandatory - they don't trust the writer to understand what he's writing!!
Mind you, if they think sentences such as "I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God" are worth writing, then perhaps they are right not to trust themselves. Try reading the sentence out loud when you have all the nuances of tone and the ability to pause or gesticulate to convey your meaning. Is there any way you can say it so that the unintentional humorous ambiguity is removed? So here the Oxford comma rescues the sentence, but it's not a good sentence to begin with. Had we written "I would like to thank Ayn Rand, my parents and God" or "I would like to thank God, Ayn Rand and my parents" the "ambiguity" would have disappeared. In fact, had the sentence been written with a serial comma as "I would like to thank God, Ayn Rand, and my parents", the serial comma creates ambiguity by implying that Ayn Rand is God!
And we saw another example where punctuation makes a bad sentence intelligible, but even there it would have been better to write "Charles I walked and talked; his head was cut off half an hour afterwards". That makes sense even without any punctuation, although the punctuation does help with the reading.
The Oxford comma is therefore a useful tool for the poor writer who knows not what he is doing.
Writers who don't use the Oxford commaEdit
Writers who are confident that they know how to write can therefore dispense with the mandatory Oxford comma. That unnecessary and unnatural appendage no longer has to cramp their style - and no longer do they need to remember to add a comma that has no purpose and no meaning.
Free to reinsert it too. Because sometimes, as with the EU example above, a comma is necessary to resolve ambiguity. There's no problem there, though. The main purpose of any punctuation is to help the reader understand the prose.
A careful writer who does not use the mandatory Oxford comma also has it available as a device to convey information to the reader: style, perhaps. Maybe a request for a short pause. You see, once the mandatory Oxford comma has disappeared we are back to normal punctuation rules. We do not replace the mandamus to use it with a prohibition against it. We are free of compulsion, and free to exercise choice.
So this writer's recommendation is clear. If you are a careful writer, and everyone who writes should seek so to be, you will not use the mandatory Oxford comma. You will forget the whole debate, and will let it become an ordinary punctuation mark - inserted where it helps the reader or conveys information. If it does neither, it will not appear.
There is a much simpler way of looking at this issue. As a non-user of Oxford commas, my main concern is simply to write text in the way that I would say or wish it to be said aloud. Writing, for me, is not just about communicating a logical point; it is about conveying an idea. To convey an idea, we must provide a conveyance: a method of carrying readers from one place to another. The punctuation, rhythm, and style of writing are the tools with which the reader can be carried along; swept up in your conversation; encouraged to pause for thought or encouraged to follow along rapidly as you drive home your point.
In movies, an editor will deliberately pause on certain camera shots for effect: a long pause on an actor's face might evoke sadness or meditative thought. A shorter pause on a face -- not long enough to actually decide on the actor's mood -- might evoke questions in the viewer. Moreover, these individual pauses affect the overall pace of the movie, largely making the difference between a fast-paced action movie, and a slow, thoughtful commentary on the human condition.
Commas, and most other punctuation, are just like this for me. A comma can be seen as a logical separator, but in another (and, I believe, more truthful) sense, the comma is nothing more complex than a pause for the reader. Everything else is evoked by the pause, but the pause itself is only a pause.
If a film maker thought that pausing on a camera shot was a logical delimiter, for the purpose of separating different shots, he may well be right on some level and he may well make good films with that knowledge. However, if he fails to see the pause as a simpler, more flexible thing -- simply a pause, which can be used as needed, drawn out or contracted for effect -- then he surely commands less editorial flexibility. His movies will be limited as a result. Likewise, those who fail to understand the comma as a simple pause may well find their writing style more limited than necessary.