The red line: do you need an Oxford comma?
Dear Freelance Editor,
Please heal my fractured family. We have been feuding for hours over the Oxford comma – for non-Grammar Nerds, that is the extra comma that can go before the coordinating conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) in a list.
For example: should I say, “my mother, my father, my sister and I have been screaming at each other all day” – or “my mother, my father, my sister, [<-- NOTE THE ADDITIONAL COMMA] and I have been screaming at each other all day”?
I’m so confused.
The Oxford Comma Sounds Really Snooty, Doesn’t It? (TOCSRSDI)
It does sound snooty, yes; it is also known as the serial comma, but let’s stick with calling it the Oxford comma. I only aspire to be a loathsome grammatical elitist.
But this is my column, so I am picking a side: I strongly recommend using the Oxford comma in most cases.
When used correctly, it eliminates confusion and ambiguity. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
"Ugh, why do we care about commas at all? This sounds really nerdy," you might say.
It surrrrre issssss nerdy! But here’s a classic example of why commas are important, generally speaking:
“I ate, Grandpa!”
“I ate Grandpa!”
In one exclamation, the speaker assures Pop-Pop that he does not need a sandwich, thank you so much. In the other, we find a horrifying declaration of intergenerational cannibalism.
The difference? One tiny little comma. It’s the delightful, clarifying confetti in the confusing ticker-tape parade that is punctuation!
"Okay, nerd, so why do I care about this Oxford comma thing? Honestly, are lists ever that confusing?"
Yes, I know you do not want to hit the comma key one more time. Yes, I know that you are very busy and important. But the Oxford comma is worth your time, my friend! Let me show you why…
Some vaguely amusing examples:
1.) “An Oscar?! Gosh. I’d like to thank Jeff, my agent and God.”
Don’t worship your agent Jeff; that can only end badly. Here we go:
“An Oscar?! Gosh. I’d like to thank Jeff, my agent, and God.”
Ahh, much better. Now it's clear Jeff, your agent, and God are different physical and metaphysical beings.
2.) My favorite foods are apples, chicken, peanut butter and pickled herring.
Peanut butter and pickled herring together? You sicko. Let’s clarify that sucker.
My favorite foods are apples, chicken, peanut butter, and pickled herring.
Now your only problem is that you enjoy pickled herring, which is a food that should only appeal to sea lions.
3.) He had many friends – including CEOs, whale trainers, leading politicians and amateur pornographers.
The leading politicians also dabble in amateur pornography? Yikes.
He had many friends – including CEOs, whale trainers, leading politicians, and amateur pornographers.
Now THAT sounds like an interesting dinner party!
The Oxford comma is a style choice (CHOICE, not requirement) but I encourage you to raise your pinky, look down your nose, and go snooty all the way. I’ll meet you in the parlor for some tea and light conversation about the proclivities of the unwashed rabble, dahlink.*
This has been a note from a Freelance Editor.
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Have a question for our resident Red Liner and frequent USER of ALL-CAPS for EMPHASIS, Kate Hamill? Leave it in the comments, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Again, different manuals recommend different things. If you are required to use AP style at work, you have to eliminate the serial comma – but if you’re calling the shots, slip that sucker in there.