The Oxford Comma: Unnecessary, Pretentious and Confusing

I stirred up quite a grammar hornets’ nest yesterday, when I mildly challenged the usefulness of the Oxford comma. Well, it may have been more than a mild challenge.

Following that tweet, I was deluged with responses from defenders of the Oxford or serial comma. Most fell back on the frequent and admittedly funny illustrations that point out instances where the comma helps to clarify a situation.

With it being a conversation between Christians, there had to be a Tim Tebow reference. oxford comma tebow English professor and writer extraordinaire, Karen Swallow Prior had perhaps the best response.

And yes, in those instances, the Oxford comma does provide clarity. If I were forced to choose between only the two options presented in the images, using the comma would be the easy choice.

But our language doesn’t require us to structure our sentences only in those ways. We could reword those and clear up the meaning without ever using the serial comma.

The odd people who wish to invite to their party dead world leaders and ladies ready to remove their clothing could just as easily say, “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.” By merely rearranging the word order you remove the confusion the Oxford comma solves.

What about Tebow claims to divinity? The same is true – move the plural noun to the end of the list and the confusion disappears.

But even more to the point, does the Oxford comma always bring clarity to a sentence? Not at all. In fact, there are similar sentences where that extra comma makes things much more confusing, as Gus Lubin points out in this excellent Business Insider piece.

Here are my anti-Oxford comma reworkings of the illustrations used against me.

Oxford Comma

Tebow Oxford Comma

That’s the point – there should be no hard and fast rule about always or never using the Oxford comma. Sometimes it brings clarity and sometimes it doesn’t.

As much as I like to poke the grammar bear on Twitter, I’m actually OK with using the serial comma, when it helps the reader better understand the meaning of the sentence.

The AP Stylebook, the official grammar guidelines for journalists, is famously against Oxford. But in actuality, AP style is to omit it for simple lists like “The flag is red, white and blue,” but to use it in more complicated situations where it helps clarify the meaning.

That “rule” makes the most sense to me – use it when it gives clarity, skip it when it doesn’t – but then I’m not sure what us grammar nerds will fight about on social media.

I suppose there is always starting a sentence with a conjunction and ending one with a preposition. Who has a handy, absolutist chart with exotic dancers, a U.S. president and an infamous world dictator?

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.