Strunk and White call it the serial comma., but I can’t think ‘serial’ without finishing it with ‘…..killer’. So the discovery that this speciality comma is aka the Oxford comma has strangely captured my attention. It has also given the serial comma the proper attention and respect it deserves.
Who cares about the Oxford comma? Obviously not the musicians in Vampire Weekend. Why should anyone else care? Such a seemingly insignificant comma, it looks just like its country cousins, but it has a noble purpose in life….that of minimizing ambiguity. I’m all for that. Clarity, conviction, and confidence that you’ve communicated exactly what you intended.
I don’t know how I could have overlooked this fascinating gramatical mark in my studies. Must be that I wasn’t travelling in the right grammar circles. For anyone who needs a refresher, here is the Oxford comma defined:
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items.
As in: “For dessert, we have peach, apple, and raisin pie.” The Oxford comma separates the apple and the raisin, giving you a choice between 3 pies. So what’s the big deal? If you take out the last comma, you might be surprised to find raisins mixed into your apple pie.
Or: Her mail indicated she was taking classes in creative writing, science fiction and Elvish. Now is that two courses? Or three? This sentence definitely needs an Oxford comma. Not all item lists do if the meaning is obvious.
Some newspaper style guides are apparently opposed to its use. Maybe they consider it superflous, excessive, and redundant? It is a space-saving decision? I suppose that there could be an argument for the elimination of the Oxford comma, if someone could determine how many trees were saved. After weighing all the pros and cons, I am definitely a fan, but not slavishly. To live up to its noble objective, it should be used when it fulfills its purpose: increasing clarity….minimizing ambiguity.
This humble little comma actually has quite a devoted following of fans. There are two Facebook groups dedicated to the Oxford comma, one know as The Oxford Comma and the other, “Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma”.
Why does the name Oxford Comma intrigue me so? Maybe because I love my English roots, the Queen, and a good British accent.
Other references to the Oxford (also known as the Harvard comma):
- Wikipedia on the Oxford comma.
- A music video from Vampire Weekend with a tune called The Oxford Comma.
Can you find the Oxford commas in this posting? Come on. I dare you.
Yours truly, The Grammar Geek