17 April 2012

Oxford Comma

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken,” wrote Lynne Truss in her humorous punctuation book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

The Oxford comma looks just like any other comma. It’s the one that falls before the final item in a list of at least three items.  (It is also known as the serial comma, but that's so expressionless and bland a name for such an interesting punctuation mark.)
Without an Oxford comma: The American flag is red, white and blue.
With an Oxford comma: The American flag is red, white, and blue.
“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” sings pop indie band Vampire Weekend in their hit single “Oxford Comma.”

Well...me, for one.

I could go on about it for a long time, but it all comes down to rules, and there only two options for a rule about the Oxford comma:
  1. use the Oxford comma all the time
  2. use the Oxford comma only when the sentence is not otherwise clear. (You want to click on that link, but possibly not at work. It depends on how much a sense of humor the person looking over your shoulder has.)
“My own feeling,” Truss wrote, trying to take the third of two options, “is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma.”

The fact is, it is difficult to see what is unclear in your own writing. You know what you meant, so you read it as you meant it, not how another person would see it. It can be difficult to identify situations when the sentence is not clear without an Oxford comma.

You might notice that I tend toward the minimal when it comes to punctuation. There have been many places here where I could put commas and such but choose not to. I try not to apply commas like they're salt-and-pepper. So I hope that gives me a bit more legitimacy when I say this: I think it's best to include the Oxford Comma all the time to ensure clarity.

I may sound a bit ridiculous or pretentious when I say this next bit, but I mean it sincerely: effective punctuation is an art. I am by no means a Picasso with a comma, but I do think about punctuation a lot and although I am very "minimal comma" I am also extremely "pro-Oxford comma." So if I leave one out sometime, it was an accident.

Oxford Commas For The Win!!

Now You!
What's your reading/writing preference for the Oxford comma?