If you use one piece of punctuation in 2013, let it be the Oxford comma.

Somebody recently pointed out that this blog’s tagline is apparently just a comforting lie I tell myself, along with “one day I’ll be rich” and “I’m definitely not turning into my mother,” because I’ve never written about the Oxford comma here.

Well. Let’s focus on the problem we can actually fix.

This is actually an opportune day to write about the Oxford comma, being the last day of 2012, because everyone around me is writing lists! Lists upon lists. Lists of lists. End-of-year reviews and recaps. So listen up, folks who are making lists: consider employing the Oxford comma in your list-making machinations. It does so much and with so little effort. It is an absolute gem of punctuation.

Because when you’re making a list, it’s important to separate clearly each item in the list from the rest. Nothing does this better than the Oxford comma (which some people insist on calling the serial comma, which, I mean, I guess you can do that. If you wanna be pedestrian about it. Look, you can call it Benedict Cumberbatch if you really want to – just as long as you’re using it).

I’ve been using the Oxford comma since, oh, 1988, when I was taught that we use commas to separate items in a list. I don’t know if it was the particular curriculum of that school, a county agenda, or something handed down by the Catholic church – for whatever reason, I learned to put a comma before the word “and” in a list. And I’ve continued to do so despite the many, many style guides that have challenged it since, because – no, really – it just makes goddamn sense.

With a simple sentence like:

I am buying cheese, pears and almonds.

Sure, you can argue that it doesn’t matter – a comma after “pears” won’t clarify anything, because it doesn’t need clarification. But frankly,

I am buying cheese, pears, and almonds.

still looks cleaner, smarter, sexier. (Yeah, I just called punctuation sexy. What of it?) But let’s try something more complicated:

I am buying cheese, idiazabal and cambozola.

Are those three separate items? Or two kinds of cheese? And why do I suddenly want wine?

My point here is that if you don’t use the Oxford comma, you are relying on your audience’s external knowledge to understand each item in your list. And that’s fine, sometimes, but I’m in favor of anything that makes the reader work less.

Why do people resist that? Do you seriously look at a tool that makes your communication – nay, your very life – easier, and say, “Oh, no, I LIKE BEING FRUSTRATED THANK YOU VERY MUCH”? I AM LOOKING AT YOU, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Of course, my favorite (if overshared) example breaks it down easily:

Use the Oxford comma.
How this alone doesn’t make my case, I do not know.

Look, we can argue all day about different examples of ambiguity created with or without certain commas. Ultimately, we can write better to avoid that ambiguity. But I’d still prefer to keep using my beloved Oxford, just to be on the safe (and sexy) side.

So make your lists. Recap your 2012s. Itemize your deductions. Just write for clarity.

Take it away, Vampire Weekend:

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2 Responses to If you use one piece of punctuation in 2013, let it be the Oxford comma.

  1. I just want to add that the sentence “I am buying cheese, idiazabal and cambozola” is not the way I would write that sentence in real life. Depending on context, it may need a parenthetical, or a colon, or whatever. But this example was used more for its unusual words (to make the point about the audience’s prior knowledge). As you were.

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