Grammar Gremlins: The Oxford Comma

Contrary to our suspicions, punctuation was not invented to bedevil us as writers. Its true purpose is to clarify meaning for readers (or for typesetters, but that’s pretty much the same thing).

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One bit of punctuation that’s been debated, sometimes ferociously, in recent decades is the Oxford Comma (or, gremlin-2as your eighth grade English teacher probably named it, the serial comma). This is the comma that may or may not be needed in a string of items, usually nouns or adjectives. It’s the comma that comes before the conjunction.

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Very often, the Oxford Comma adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence and is therefore unnecessary. The flag of the United States is red, white and blue. There’s no mistaking the meaning of that, with or without a serial comma after white..But there are instances in which that comma really does make a difference.

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Frankly, I’m finding it difficult to compete with some of the hilarious examples on the Internet, but let’s start with something simpler.

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Without the serial comma: We invited the Smiths, George and Emily. That’s two people, George and Emily Smith.

With the serial comma: We invited the Smiths, George, and Emily. That’s at least four people, maybe more—George, Emily, and an unspecified number of Smiths.

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Without the serial comma: Meet my parents, Jane and Joe. Two people, both of them my parents.

With the serial comma: Meet my parents, Jane, and Joe. Four people, and Jane and Joe are not my parents.

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The Internet is rife with Oxford Comma arguments, pro and con, and with examples of what can happen without one:

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I like going on vacation, hanging with friends, drinking good beer and driving fast. (Designated driver needed here.)

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I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. (What fantasy is this?)

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Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. (Oh, gremlin-3Merle, what have you been up to?)

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I’m having my favorite sandwich, coleslaw and chocolate cake. (Oh, please, no!)

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It the Oxford Comma always necessary? No.

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Is it sometimes essential? Yes.

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Go ahead, use it. There is no comma shortage.

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Remember, as Lynne Truss points out in her entertaining history of punctuation, commas make the difference between the timid panda that eats shoots and leaves, and the felonious panda that eats, shoots, and leaves.

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