The Oxford Comma: Preventing chaos or a waste of space?

If you have a coat, you most likely wear it some days, forget it in the car on others and leave it at home the rest of the time.

Sure, it might seem nice to be consistent and wear it every day or to never wear it at all, but it’s just not practical.

That coat is just like the famous Oxford Comma.

In fact, maybe I should call it the Oxford Coat.

The Oxford Comma, for those of you who have better things to do than worry about names of commas (although I don’t know what else that would be) is the comma that many people use before the “and” in sentence where they are listing items.

For example, if you would say “I would like you to buy liver, celery, beets, and artichokes at the store,” I would say, “No, all of those foods are gross!”

In your question, though, the comma after the word “beets” is known as the Oxford Comma.

This little period with a tail is more controversial than a semicolon because some people say it is always needed, while others argue that it is never needed.

Supporters say, and they actually have a pretty good argument, that the Oxford Comma eliminates ambiguity in sentences by separating items in a list and that it should always be used.

They often bring up the definite need for the Oxford Comma in famous sentences such as “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Here, if you don’t use the comma, then it looks like you invited the strippers, who were JFK and Stalin.

Or, if I said, “I spent Christmas with my brothers, Barry Sanders, and Kyrie Irving,” and I didn’t use the Oxford Comma, then it would look like my brothers are Barry Sanders and Kyrie Irving. While that would be awesome, it is not true, so I need that Oxford Comma in the sentence.

I should also point out that while I have spent several Christmases with my brothers, I have never spent a Christmas with Barry Sanders or Kyrie Irving (yet), except for watching them on television.

So, I guess it looks like the supporters are right after all and we need the Oxford Comma to eliminate confusion and total chaos in our sentences.

Well, no.

You see, in most list sentences, the “and” at the end of the list does the work of the comma by separating the items just fine.

If you said out loud, “I love Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and Air Supply,” you would sound foolish (even though they are all awesome), but it would have nothing to do with the elimination of the Oxford Comma. In that sentence, and in many others, the “and” in the sentence makes you pause between items so that the extra comma is not needed.

I think and believe that the Oxford Comma is redundant in most cases. Newspaper style, by the way, agrees with me.

You don’t need to pause twice in the list, so why do I need to have two pausing items in the sentence? Do I want readers to pause for an extra long time before they get to the last item in the list?

Why should I waste a perfectly good comma when it is not needed? Shouldn’t we be conserving in these troubled times?

At the same time, it would be foolish to never use the Oxford Comma because sometimes it certainly is needed. I say that it’s just like that Oxford Coat, you use it when appropriate and leave it alone the rest of the time

The English language always calls for special exceptions and demands inconsistencies, and I think of the Oxford Comma as one of these inconsistencies. I consistently choose not to use it, except for the special exceptions when I consistently choose to use it.

Finally, if you are on the fence about the Oxford Comma, just think about the name. Why do we have to do what Oxford says? And as an Ohio University alumnus who is against all things related to Miami University (actually a great school but a conference rival), which is located in Oxford, Ohio, that’s just another reason that I can’t bring myself to use that particular piece of punctuation. Oxford Comma, no thank you. Athens Exclamation Point, why sure!!*

Some may say, “But Nick, why should I care about such things? What’s wrong with just throwing that extra comma in there all the time just for the sake of watching out for any confusion that may crop up unexpectedly?”

I say that if you want to do that, that’s just fine for you. You can also choose to wear your coat every day throughout the year just for the sake of watching out for snow, cold weather, or rain that may come up unexpectedly.

For me, in most cases I am going to avoid it, eliminate it and not worry about it.


*Note, I just made up the term Athens Exclamation Point, but I suggest that’s what we should call the second exclamation point in a series. Somewhat similar to the Oxford Comma, it is unnecessary at times, but it is much more fun!!

Please feel free to add any comments, questions or complaints about the Oxford Comma below. Thanks.

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