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March 8, 2012

Elizabeth Sterzinger on the "Oxford comma" — Episode 2: Always, not maybe


Yesterday's Episode 1 post featuring Ms. Sterzinger's witty visual demonstration of the so-called "Oxford comma" (above) elicited a passionate follow-up email from her, pointing out that to her way of thinking I still didn't get it.

She was right.

Read her email (below) and you will understand why it instantly overturned my lifelong practice of omitting the second comma from a series of three items, resulting in my new policy of always employing it unless it interferes with the meaning intended.


Thank you!


We disagree, sharply, as to usage — unless I misunderstand your post (which is possible, because I read it fast).

The serial (Oxford) comma, according to people who understand language the best* (e.g., the MLA, NOT the AP), should ALWAYS be used to separate the last and second to last items (before the conjunction) in ANY list of parallel items, be those items nouns, verbs, or modifiers.** This includes those instances even when excluding it would *not* cause confusion. The goal is consistency and clarity, not "preference." 

*I say that not to sound snobbish, merely matter-of-fact.

**Had I excluded the serial comma from this sentence, someone who didn't know that I clearly understand that only adjectives and adverbs function as modifiers in English could have assumed that "verbs or modifiers" qualify as "nouns" in my book.

The serial or Oxford comma should only be excluded when its absence intentionally suggests a significant connection or relation between the last two items — that is, when the items are NOT syntactically parallel.

For example:

Correct: The American flag is red, white, and blue.

Incorrect: The American flag is red, white and blue.

Syntactically, the incorrect example above could suggest that white and blue parenthetically clarify or "flesh out" what is meant by "red." Common sense tells us that this is not true. However, "common sense" did not tell Robert Frost's editor what he meant when he wrote:

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

    But I have promises to keep

    And miles to go before I sleep

This editor jammed a serial comma into the first line of this stanza, so it read:

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

which is a different (and less interesting) line entirely. The line, as Frost (eeeek!) intended it, suggested that the woods are lovely IN THAT they are dark and deep — or — the woods are lovely, but that loveliness has to do with darkness and depth. The line with the serial comma suggests that the woods are three things — and that is that.

What all of the above suggests is that the serial comma SHOULD ALWAYS be used before the conjunction in a parallel list. That way, when an author excludes it, the reader (or, in Frost's case, editor) knows, and doesn't have to guess or gather from context, that there is a significant connection between the last two items, and that, for example, "lovely," "dark," and "deep" are not intended to be used in parallel construction.

That is a very poor explanation of one of my most dearly-held principles, not clarified further because my computer battery is dying. In short, usage guides often suggest that the serial comma can be excluded according to taste and preference, and included only when necessary to preserve clarity. Legal writing experts, academic writing experts, and others who prioritize clarity and consistency disagree. I'm passionate about it!


What an asset is thelizabeff to bookofjoe.

I'm really considering bumping her salary yet again, just a day after I doubled it.

That should bring her into minimum wage territory.

Oops — TMI?

No matter, she's got a thick skin, she'll get over it.




March 8, 2012 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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EEEEEEEK! Ahahahaha! My email is a blog post! Well, I hope you proofread my blathering for grammatical errors. Nothing shames one more thoroughly than splitting an infinitive or inserting a commma splice while one chides the universe for poor comma usage.

Posted by: thelizabeff | Mar 8, 2012 3:33:29 PM

Time to add "fact" to my lapses.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Mar 8, 2012 2:54:27 PM

Lucid account of the Mariner 1 failure on Wikipedia:


Posted by: bookofjoe | Mar 8, 2012 1:57:03 PM

I forgot to mention, by the way, that the Mariner 1 issue was a hyphen, not a comma (not Fortran, either), and the hyphen wasn't solely responsible for the failure, only a contributory factor. The big problem was the extended multiple losses of the telemetry link.

Bugs: "Ring-a-ling-ling!"
Elmer: "Hewo? Hewo? Hewo?!"

Posted by: Mike Harney | Mar 8, 2012 1:50:43 PM

Every time I use that Oxford comma before the last in a series of three or more -- something I've done ever since I read Strunk & White's Elements of Style when I was a teenager -- I briefly note whether the meaning of the sentence could be completely different without that final comma. It so often could that I marvel at the overwhelming number of news sources that omit it. Do any of them make an exception when the meaning could be different? Nope, not a one in my experience.

I highly recommend Elements of Style, by the way. It's all I ever needed.

Posted by: Mike Harney | Mar 8, 2012 1:44:14 PM

I am guilty of many lapses in punctuation, grammar, and spelling in my quickly written posts here on BOJ. With that admission I will point out that a missing comma has cost tens of millions of dollars where the comma in question lead to ambiguity in the operation of a collective bargaining agreement, the description of real property, or the FORTRAN code (missing from the continuation colum) for a Venus-bound spacecraft.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Mar 8, 2012 1:29:28 PM

It took me a moment there to figure out the difference between the two opening examples (about inviting strippers), but I got it. I had habitually put a comma before the "and" of the last item in the list until recently when someone told me it wasn't needed. Thanks to this post, I now understand the difference and the oxford comma. I can now discern whether or not I need that comma. cool.

Posted by: Bubbub | Mar 8, 2012 1:08:58 PM

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