To Use, or Not to Use: My Struggle With the Oxford Comma

I have to admit, I’m having a bit of a punctuation crisis.

You see, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Oxford comma:

Cover of "The Flintstones (Collector's Ed...

Have a gay ol’ time, Walter Sobchak.

Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty went out to a bar.

Because of the clarity granted by the final comma, you realize you are still in a list, but the “and” indicates there’s an end in sight.

But now I’m not so sure.

I started thinking about the functionality of the comma, and how I use it in my writing. Commas in my writing and the writing of others are used for three purposes: to indicate a short pause in a sentence, to replace the use of the serial “and,” and to separate clauses that are always preceded by a conjunction. For those familiar with other languages, (Spanish comes to mind immediately,) you may be familiar with the serial “and.” English punctuation rules discourage this, though it has its benefits. But I digress.

There’s a fair amount of controversy surrounding the use of the Oxford comma and its nemesis, the naked coordinating conjunction. To be quite honest, I care not for the name-calling. Language is a utility that should be useful. As written language is tasked with communicating sans bruit, punctuation satisfies the functionality of silence in language. This calls for pragmatic and ubiquitous comma usage rules. What’s at stake is the clarity of language I strive for. And you do too.

Let’s revisit the previously quoted sentence.

Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty went out to a bar.

The above sentence uses the Oxford comma. Let’s see the sentence without the Oxford comma.

Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty went out to a bar.

There’s a subtle difference between the two sentences that has little to do with clarity or utility. The main problem is bulk. Because there is no question that “Barney” and “Betty” are separate items and are not acting as an apposition to either of the prior items in the sentence, the coordinating conjunction “and” does all the work that can be done. So, while I have conditioned myself to write or type the Oxford comma every time, this just adds a character when I don’t actually need it. The Oxford comma, in this case, is optional.

The punctuation mark comma

I tried not to give a fuck. (Wikipedia)

There are an immeasurable quantity of sentences where the Oxford comma could or could not be used. It’s not my job to disprove one side or support the other. There’s a utility for the Oxford comma in the form of clarifying and suggesting interpretations of phrases and sentences. But where it should not be is everywhere: this is clunky writing and taxing on the reader. Pauses mean everything in communication, but communication does not mean pauses for the sake of pauses. The intent of the Oxford comma is to make sentences as unambiguous as possible, and with a spoonful of pragmatic discussion, it is more than possible to come to a civil and tasteful resolution to debates on comma usage.

For further reading, check out the linked Wikipedia pages and articles of other origin. The Oxford comma argument is a vitriolic but altogether fascinating debate.

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