The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, I believe, is generally referred to as the serial comma in the States.

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When I took English back before the Beatles, I learned to separate all the items of a series with commas. Thus it was mandatory to write:  “Red, White, and Blue.” As the years passed there was a tacit movement to eliminated unnecessary punctuation and it seemed reasonable. Go back and read some of those 19th century authors with their commas and colons and semi-colons. Now notice that when I write a series using the conjunction “and” I do not require  any serial commas. Going back to the original phrase, the use of the final serial comma is redundant. Thus it seems logical to write: “Red, White and Blue.”

That, in essence, is the controversy over the serial or Oxford comma and I believe even today the various style sheets, like MLA, tend to take sides making the need for the serial comma still very confusing.

One thing that you learn about writing is that bad grammar often is magically cured by rethinking the word order in the text. After all, isn’t faulty word order the essence of egregious faults such as dangling modifiers? Therefore, despite the obvious problem the graphic presents, it actually isn’t necessary to solve it with the serial comma. One suggestion is to reorder the list like this:  “JFK, Stalin and strippers.” Thus the possible misinterpretation of JFK and Stalin as being strippers is avoided. Still, it is possible to read the phrase with the understanding that JFK came alone but Stalin brought some of his favorite strippers. Replace the phrase with “bureaucrats”— does it mean JFK and Stalin and a bunch of bureaucrats (both American and Russian) or maybe only Stalin brought his bureaucrats with him?

My conclusion:  the simplest and least confusing answer is to always use the serial or Oxford comma.

Although not a topic for this discussion, the decline in the use of punctuation, even when needed, is appalling and can be squarely attributed to the digital communications prevalent today. I have two friends who teach English at the college level and both confess that the quality of student writing sucks.

4 responses

  1. In ninth grade, we had a grammar Nazi for English. In fact, he was a Prussian priest named Father Gerard Hageman, whose influence on my subsequent writing was major. He would give out daily assignments in which the only possible grades were 100% and 0%. He also had come up with a mnemonic to classify all the known uses of commas. I remember it to this day: D SAPS DTC CINQ MOC.

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    • I often wonder if they still teach subjects such as spelling and grammar in school … they probably no longer diagram sentences on the blackboard. I still have my copy of the no-nonsense grammar book my mother used when she was in school and I sometimes take down Fowler and thumb through the pages—there are still many nuances of the English language that I have either never learned or have sadly forgotten.

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      • It gives me a sense of pride to be grammatically correct and to spell correctly — to the extent that I will change my blogs immediately upon discovering any errors.

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