In Defense of the Oxford Comma

In Defense of the Oxford Comma

The decision of one University of Oxford department to cease recommending the use of the Oxford comma (the comma inserted before the final item in a list; in “dicks, boobs, and asses,” the Oxford comma appears after “boobs”) has been greeted with elation by the world’s many comma haters.

This is not a minor matter. While it’s true that this news concerns only one of the multiple style guides used and issued by the University of Oxford, it’s a big one: it’s the institution’s “branding toolkit,” suggesting that the Oxford comma is no longer part of the official Oxford brand.

The style guide does allow that Oxford commas may be used “when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity”—but that’s always true. If I write “Larry, Curly, and Moe,” you know I’m listing the Three Stooges; but if I write “Larry, Curly and Moe,” I might be introducing Curly and Moe to Larry. It’s inelegant.

The New Yorker is famously pro-comma, and for a damned good reason: commas add precision and end debate. Sure, If I write “translated from the Spanish by Becky Lang,” you know what I mean—but technically, that phrase could suggest that the piece was translated from a language Becky Lang invented. Why not add a couple of commas so the phrase becomes “translated, from the Spanish, by Becky Lang”? Becky gets her proper credit, and the 9th century Iberians get theirs.

Though the lyrics of Vampire Weekend’s song “Oxford Comma” ask “who gives a fuck” about that particular punctuation, at a deeper level what the song is arguing is that the woman at whom the lyric is directed should pay less attention to academic debates and more attention to the lies she’s been telling about very down-to-earth liaisons. Here, the Oxford comma represents the epitome of esoteric minutiae.

That’s why academic nerds love the song: if you’re going to be distracted from a suitor, what sexier, smarter thing to be distracted by than the Oxford comma? To care about the Oxford comma—either pro or con may be honorable, as long as you support your argument—is the mark of a person who appreciates both language and the finer points of the ideas it represents. Long may the debate over the Oxford comma rage, even if Oxford itself prematurely capitulates.

Jay Gabler

Illustration from photo by Tejvan Photos (Creative Commons)