Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sex, and drugs, and rock, and roll. And Oxford commas

Oxford last Saturday
I have been using the past week to alienate some friends on Twitter by celebrating the exaggerated reports of the death of the Oxford comma.

For those who don't know, an Oxford comma is the one placed before "and" in a list. Despite its name (and it is also known as the Harvard or serial comma), it is rarely used in Britain but is much more common in North America. 

Many of my American correspondents are appalled at the thought of dropping this little piece of punctuation, predicting an apocalypse of ambiguity. We seem to manage quite happily without it here in Britain, which suggests to me that it isn't all that necessary.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. The Oxford University Press, whose rules gave the Oxford comma its name, has not abolished it. The directive that stirred up the fuss came from the university's Public Affairs Directorate, which isn't the same thing.

As it happens, I was in Oxford last weekend and I didn't see a lot of commas. Since we're in the middle of the Johann Hari scandal, I feel duty-bound to provide photographic proof that I really was there, and the photo has a tenuous relevance in that I once had a friendly argument about this very subject with the young lady in the picture, who has a better English degree than me and was working at the time for a major publisher. She described the Oxford comma as "graceful" and cited the oft-quoted dedication:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God
This suggests that the writer's parents were Ayn Rand and God. The obvious retort is:
To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God
…which suggests that the writer's mother is Ayn Rand.

It seems clear from this simple exchange that you should use the Oxford comma when it removes ambiguity and avoid it when it creates ambiguity, because neither approach can be guaranteed to work in all cases. In other words, scrupulous writers should know when their writing is ambiguous and use their skill to avoid it. Whatever your personal rule, you should follow George Orwell's maxim: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." If you can't adapt, then you have no business calling yourself a writer. Sorry.

This post could end here, but I have to add the rule: "If punctuation serves no purpose, then don't use it." I've blogged before about the over-use of commas (here and here), so my reasons not to use the Oxford comma go beyond habit and upbringing.

There is a principle here: writing should flow, and commas should be used sparingly because they disrupt that flow (I'll get to why I used a comma there in a minute). The main use of a comma is to create a pause that mimics pauses in speech, and the spoken pause and the written comma create a little distance between two thoughts. Thus, in the above sentence, the comma helps to show that the words "flow" and "commas", although joined by "and", are not being specifically paired. Similarly, the bracketed comma is used to separate a phrase that could otherwise go in brackets (parentheses), as in the the phrase "in the above sentence" earlier in this paragraph. In short, commas are separators as much as joiners.

So, a comma before "and" is usually intended to denote separation, yet the Oxford comma is supposed to do just the opposite. In the simple example I used in the Twitter discussions: "sausage, egg and bacon"; there is no possible ambiguity. Furthermore, when you read it aloud there is no pause before "and", whereas there is a pause before "egg". So, why add an extra piece of punctuation that mimics a sound that isn't there and whose sole purpose is to remove an ambiguity that doesn't exist?

You wouldn't write "eggs, and bacon". How does the addition of "sausage" affect the relationship between "egg" and "bacon"?

Devotees who were polite and helpful enough to explain their position to me* pointed out that always using it keeps the rule consistent for when there is an ambiguity. I don't buy that. I don't add punctuation to a sentence simply to avoid confusion in a completely different, hypothetical sentence that I didn't write and don't intend to write. Interestingly, the OUP itself seems to agree with me, up to a point:
The general rule is that one style or the other should be used consistently. However, the last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity, particularly when any of the items are compound terms joined by a conjunction, and it is sometimes helpful to the reader to use an isolated serial comma for clarification even when the convention has not been adopted in the rest of the text. In "cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies, and sandwiches" the absence of a comma after pies would imply something unintended about the sandwiches.
In this instance, the comma is unavoidable unless the writer plans to split the list into two sentences, which would be worse.

In most cases, however, it is either unnecessary or a quick fix for a badly made sentence. I'm seldom happy with fixes that would solve the problem for the reader but not for a listener, and the Oxford comma does just that. Michael Quinion's short comment on the subject uses this example:
"He studied Roman history, international politics and economics"
Were the economics international too? The quick fix is the Oxford comma. The better fix is to write:
"He studied Roman history, economics and international politics"
Similarly, the dedication writer could have written: "To Ayn Rand, my parents and God", while Jeremy Dibbell's example: "Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall", could just as easily have been written "Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives".**

Above all, rigid adherence to one style or the other can get a writer into quite a pickle (isn't it interesting how often food comes into these examples?). Take the following poster on The Guardian's website:
I have three favorite types of sandwiches: (1) tuna; (2) ham; and (3) cheese.
With Oxford/Harvard/serial comma: I love to eat tuna, ham, and cheese sandwiches.
Without: I love to eat tuna and ham and cheese sandwiches.
Does the second sentence imply two or three types?
He sees the ambiguity in the second example but not in the first. In neither sentence is it clear whether the tuna and the ham are enjoyed in sandwiches or on their own. The ambiguity is resistant to both approaches, and the only solution is to rewrite the sentence.

Ian Dury could get away with the lyrics "sex and drugs and rock and roll", but this was done for comic and rhythmic effect. Commas in a series avoid excessive repetition of the word "and" and so are a synonym for it. By using the Oxford comma, you are effectively writing "and" twice.

In short, it seems heavy-handed to slow the flow of your writing with disambiguating punctuation that is only needed in a tiny minority of cases and cannot be guaranteed to do the job even then. Words are the meat. Punctuation is seasoning and should be used sparingly.

Moral: Use the Oxford comma only when you have to, and then ask yourself if you could have phrased it better. If it's still the best solution, use it.

*Those who helped (and whom I wholeheartedly thank) include Jaime Sperling, Meditor, Colleen Barry, Paul Sholar and Michelle Baker. Use these links to follow them on Twitter. They're all good.
**This final example has been countered quite effectively by Green Fence Farm in the comments section. I should have thought about that a bit more. 


  1. Here's the point: The Oxford comma, applied consistently, is completely devoid of ambiguity. It is placed according to a set rule.

    As a result, if the reader sees, "my parents, Ayn Rand and God," then the reader understands how to interpret the statement (parents are Ayn Rand and God).

    The other way, sans Oxford comma, means that the editor is applying person discrimination, making fine judgements, deciding for him or herself what is ambiguous and deciding on comma placement on a case-by-case basis.

    The reader is left foundering. The correct decision here is to not think of the editor, but to consider the reader (whose plight is paramount).

  2. "My mother, Ayn Rand, and God"

    "Completely devoid of ambiguity", did you say?

  3. "Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives?"

    What you clarified with reorganization, you confused with faulty pronoun reference. The Oxford comma wouldn't have fixed that, but the pause it causes might have let the reader catch the mistake.

  4. @Green Fence Farm
    Do you know, what? You're quite right. I feel suitably abashed for not thinking that one through properly.

  5. @Green Fence Farm
    …although "Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, and his two ex-wives" would contain the same ambiguity. So here the Oxford comma in the original order seems to do the job.

  6. I'm not in the habit of using the OC despite being American, because I worked for Chambers here in the UK for years and our house style discouraged it. (No, that isn't why we went bust.)

    But when writing for my blog, which is mainly about American family history so far, I've for some reason felt compelled to use Oxford commas all along. I suppose it's because I've been nervous about its reception and wanting to do everything to make it feel "right" to an American readership.

    *head in hands*

    I think I'll switch back. I don't like Oxford commas. US friends will just have to suck it up.

  7. ["Completely devoid of ambiguity", did you say?]

    Yes I surely did. Let's look again at the parenthetical item that you truncated when quoting me: "(parents are Ayn Rand and God)."

    Thus, if indeed that's what the writer meant, consistent use of the serial comma makes the matter clear. The other style (we can call it AP here for brevity), one can argue, requires the editor to make personal judgements.

    Following AP style, the editor weighs each case in turn, electing to insert a serial comma (or not) based on an individual decision as to whether or not clarity is enhanced by the comma.

    The reader has no way of knowing what's going on here. The serial comma, on the other hand, resolves the problem. The publications I work on conform to AP style, but have an exception in their style sheets mandating the serial comma for exactly these reasons.

  8. @The Raven
    Sorry for the rushed response to your first comment. It was getting late and my daughter was grumbling that I hadn't gone shopping. Now, with a full larder, I can reply with a bit more detail and (I hope) a lot more courtesy.

    Your point, well argued though it is, seems to rest on there being no ambiguity in "my mother, Ayn Rand, and God", and that this clarity of understanding comes purely from a familiarity with the writer's consistency of style. I find that belief to be optimistic. As an editor myself, I have to make judgements all the time based on how hundreds of different readers will interpret what is written.

    Perhaps the ambiguity is more clearly visible if we use the example, "to my mother, a tireless activist for the Falangist cause, and God". By your inflexible logic, any reader would be wondering who this activist was and why he or she had not been identified.

    My point in this post was that one should be consistent while remaining aware that either approach can, in rare cases, create ambiguity. The fact that I then went on to explain my preference for "AP style" should not taken to mean that your favoured style is "wrong". Your defence of it is helpful and illuminating, both for me and for other readers.

  9. There is online comma checker which is the best way to achieve goal in our life. Thank you for this amazing post..

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.