Karma for the Comma

I love that visual pun.

It’s brilliant.

I also love the song that inspired it. Let’s listen to it and then look closely at that often misused and abused piece of punctuation that is the comma.

The comma has a few basic functions and rolls to play in a sentence, but today I would like to look at just one of its many uses.

Commas help separate items in a list.

I went to the store and bought apples, marshmallows, cookies, and milk.

Whenever you write a list, you need to include a comma after each item. In the above example, I used what is called the Oxford Comma.

Wars have been fought over this little comma. I should know. I just had a huge fight with my girlfriend about it.

She argues that you do not need to include a comma before the “and.” It seems that there are a growing number of people out there who agree with her. They believe that the Oxford Comma is redundant.

I can’t understand this reasoning at all. If the last comma is omitted, I invariable read those last two items as being naturally together. Sometimes, that just doesn’t make sense for the sentence. Leaving out the Oxford Comma just creates confusion.

Let’s look at an example where this is the case.

They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

In this above example, we can see that there are three items in this list. No comma is needed between bacon and eggs since they are naturally grouped together. It makes sense.

Here’s a hilarious example of what can happen when the last comma is absent.

This newspaper caption reads, “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

The Oxford Comma is missing and to great peril. The way it reads, it sounds like two of his colleagues were, in fact, married to him at one time. This is not the case, and this confusion could have easily been avoided with the correct placement of the Oxford Comma.

I rest my case.

What are your thoughts?

Do you use the Oxford, or serial comma? 

Do you think it’s redundant? 

Please leave a comment and extend this argument debate. 

10 responses to “Karma for the Comma”

  1. Hi Chase .. I love the photo for the Comma .. and your examples – I don't use the Oxford comma and haven't for ages .. but as I didn't know it was called the Oxford comma – I rest my case with a complete incomprehension of English grammar .. one day I need to be taken in hand and have it all explained to me. For now I just write .. and Gull edits (occasionally!) ..

    I do wish I understood the English language .. but something went in somewhere along the line. My recent attraction to ellipses is a little surprise – but perhaps that's because I don't understand the grammar in the first place!

    Cheers .. commas are so ephemeral .. I hope life is patched up? Lawyers say commas alter whole pieces of written text .. and can be interpreted differently – so (I think) they hardly use any .. and I have no idea what they're on about!!

    Again .. bye – Hilary

  2. Hi Hilary,

    Most people don't use the comma correctly. Most of the times, it doesn't bother me. However, I really love the Oxford comma and want to insert it in every sentence I see that has neglected to use it.

    I'm not the only staunch supporter of this little punctuation mark either.

    I was planning a post on the ellipse next week. Wait till you see that one.


  3. Hi Chase .. interesting isn't it – in The Times (London one .. our London one!) .. today 30 July 2011 – Harry Judge from Oxford writes:

    Pause for a ,

    Sir, Attentive readers will be grateful to your Religion Correspondent for demonstrating the necessity of preserving the Oxford Comma, the utility of which had recently been queried in your columns. Now we are told (report July 28) that "The three dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds and Wakefield are to disappear".

    Three? An Oxford comma after Leeds would make it obvious to those not already in the know that Ripon and Leeds is already the name of a single diocese.

    Harry Judge – Oxford

    Thought you'd be interested .. amazing how things pop up .. and hit the eye ..

    Cheers Hilary

  4. Hi Hilary,

    Love that example! Thanks for adding it to this post. It just goes to show the power of a single comma (or lack thereof)


  5. Just wondering if you knew that picture that says "if you have stuck with the oxford comma until the very end" is a parody of the author's note in the final Harry Potter book. If you did, would have been nice if you had clarified it (:

  6. Ciao,
    I’m italian. (and sorry for my english)
    In italian we don’t have the “Oxford comma”.
    From an italian point of view, if you have a list of object, it doesn’t make sense to be separated by a comma if there is an “and”.
    Except in the cases you pointed!
    So the ones you are mentioning in italian are the exceptions, not the rule.
    And if you scientifically, semantically think about it, a list, in most of the cases, is a “plain” list of single objects:
    pears, apples and carrots. books, a pen, some pencils and a rubber.
    Unless special cases in which you have a list with subgroups, and in that case – the exception – you may use punctuation to make it clear that you have a subgroup:
    a car, one bike and a sidecar, and a trailer.
    Besides, “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall” is WRONG even in my poor english!
    The misunderstanding comes from the fact that the writer didn’t use correctly punctuation. Corrected:
    “Among those interviewed were: his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall”

  7. In all discussions of the Oxford comma, the sentences used to illustrate why you should always use it are simply sentences where it happens to be needed. The insistence on always using the Oxford comma is like the daft American rule of always putting the punctuation inside the quote marks, even when it really belongs to the sentence as a whole, not to the bit inside the quotes. It saves the writer the effort of thinking. My trust is in the one who knows when the Oxford comma is useful and when it is not, and uses it accordingly. The insistence on always using it is pandering to laziness.

    There is no insistence on the Oxford comma when there are only two items:

    “They had a choice between croissants and muesli.”

    Everyone’s fine with that. But sometimes there does need to be an Oxford comma, when the first of two items is compound:
    “They had a choice between bacon and eggs, and muesli.”
    Of course, you could argue that the sentence is unconfusing without the comma, since bacon and eggs go together as eggs and muesli do not. Or that the first “and” makes the two items one item.

  8. Hi Neil,

    Great points! I love the idea of using the comma almost all of the time. There really is no reason not to. It’s one key stroke after all.