Crimes against Grammar: The Oxford Comma


I am the daughter of two English teachers. I never stood a chance.

I love punctuation. I always have. One of my favorite things to do is to take a badly written piece and mark all the places it needs commas and periods and semicolons. It’s so satisfying to me, to see all the mistakes being corrected right there, with just a dot or a swoosh of the pen.

Everything in punctuation has a purpose, a specific role: it’s there to help you. It’s there to make writing clearer and reading easier.

Enter the Oxford comma–the poor, abused Oxford comma.

Commas have always had a special place in my heart. They are second only to the em-dash in my affections. I love seeing commas used correctly, and I hate seeing them omitted or misused. (This is probably the reason that I so much like to grab a bright red pen and swoosh them in.)

One of my favorite places to use commas is with items in a series, a situation in  which they are indispensable, essential, and necessary.

Overlook the redundancy of that list, and focus in on the grammar.

Indispensable, essential, and necessary.

Lovely, isn’t it? Simple and clear and elegant. Imagine if I had written it like this:

Indispensable, essential and necessary.

That changes the meaning. Am I saying that indispensable means essential and necessary? (It does, but that’s beside the point. Please focus, here.) Or am I trying to say that it is indispensable and essential AND necessary? Will the reader ever know?

The comma that should–in all cases, at all times, for the good of all people–be placed after essential is called the Oxford comma.

And of all the commas in all the world, the Oxford comma is most abused.

Why? Because every comma that a student misuses or an author forgets at least has the comfort of knowing that it is  supported by the official rules of the English language–those blessed rules of this beautiful language. Maybe that student forgot to put a comma there, but that comma belongs there. By law.

And I believe that that is a comfort to misused commas.

But not for the Oxford comma.

Google the Oxford comma. Read a few articles on it. What do they say about it? They say it’s optional, readers. Optional.

The effrontery.

Here we have a wholesome, useful comma that is often essential to understanding a sentence. And the rules of the English language–those blessed rules of this beautiful language–have forsaken it.

“But why is this such a big deal? It’s just a comma, and a lot of the time you don’t even need it.”

Hush your mouth and listen.

I like apples, oranges and bananas.

Not hard to understand. Obviously, I’m talking about items in a series here, because no one ever talks about fruit except to talk about them as items in a series. But look:

The only people who knew about it were my two best friends, the weird guy next door and the neighborhood cat.

Uh-oh. Suddenly some poor child’s safety and well-being are at stake. Are little Sally’s two best friends a creepy neighbor and a mangy stray cat, or has she simply been deceived by a teacher she trusted who told her that the comma after the second item is unnecessary?

Do you see, now? The Oxford comma is not to be forgotten. It is immensely helpful. It clarifies things, so you know whether you should be worried about Sally’s social life or her education.

“Well, I don’t see the big deal. It’s not like it’ll ever cost me millions in an overtime dispute.”

Oh, my friend. I have something for you. It’s a little article called “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Millions in Overtime Dispute.”

You see, now, why we need the Oxford comma. We need it. For the good of all.

So next time you’re writing a note to your spouse, and you write, “Please pick up apples, oranges and bananas,” don’t forget the Oxford comma. He’s been forgotten enough already.

Before you go, I’d like to leave you with one more sentence:

We have the shoes in red and green, orange and blue and pink and black.

Oof. Sorry if that made you a little nauseous. I forgot a comma.

7 thoughts on “Crimes against Grammar: The Oxford Comma

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