I apologize for the intermittent posting the past month; what with the end of summer filling me with the spirit to jam in a bunch of relaxation and the end of summer filling me with a need to jam in a bunch of work that I didn’t do earlier, I’ve had precious little time to write about grammar. But admittedly, it was also that my interest in the intricacies of grammar were flagging a bit. I know that’s not something that many people would lament, this inability of grammar to raise one’s hackles. In fact, for many prescriptivists, this is something I wish they’d encounter. But for me, it was a bit worrisome — especially as I had recently been enjoying a resurgence of interest in syntactic research.
And then I was in a conversation with my mother in which she remarked on some people’s usage of a commas in a list. Specifically, she didn’t understand why anyone would add a comma after the penultimate item in a list, as in (1); she found it to be greatly preferable to omit it, as in (2).
(1) What sort of fool, imbecile, or moron does the author take me for?
(2) Surely I can read, follow and understand the point without the extra comma!
At that, my grammatical hackles rose! It was time to discuss the finer points of a negligible grammar point! Hooray! A long and boring conversation ensued about why my mother was biased against the comma (she blamed her strict schooling), why I was biased toward the comma (I blamed my raging Anglophilia in my formative years), and why she was bothered so by the presence or absence of such a minor mark (her schooling coupled with her natural proclivity to favor order in the universe). But the big question our conversation raised — and failed to answer — was this: why is this comma an issue at all? No one argues that the other commas in a list ought to get the heave-ho, but people are pretty evenly divided over the Oxford comma. So what’s its deal?
First, a bit of background. The Oxford comma is so called because it is standard in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, and has been for over a hundred years. The Oxford comma is attested in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide, and remains there to this day. The comma also goes by a few other names. Those of a less Anglophilic bent can call it the Harvard comma — although as a loyal Princetonian I would never sully my reputation by doing so. Those who seek to remain neutral in such Anglo-American affairs can call it the serial comma. And those who don’t much care about minor punctuation issues refer to it as “that extra comma” or “that stupid extra comma”, depending on whether or not they use it.
But whatever you call the comma, is it right or wrong? There’re fair arguments on both sides. One might be concerned about limiting ambiguity. Alas, including the Oxford comma can lead to ambiguity, but omitting it can lead to ambiguity as well. Consider (3) and (4):
(3a) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant, and Dolly Parton.
(3b) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant and Dolly Parton.
(4a) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera.
(4b) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera.
It is clear, thanks to the Oxford comma in (3a) that I am not friends with Hugh Grant or Dolly Parton. In (3b), though, they could potentially be my friends, listed as an appositive phrase, and the sentence is thus somewhat ambiguous. Deus ex Oxford comma! On the other hand, in (4a), if you don’t know who Alia Shawkat is, then you may reasonably conclude that the commas are intended to indicate an appositive and that Alia Shawkat is my Congresswoman. (4b) is clearer; since Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera can’t both be my Congresswoman, it’s clear that I was constructing a three-item list. Diabolus ex Oxford comma! In the first case, the Oxford comma dispels ambiguity, but in the second it induces ambiguity. So ambiguity doesn’t push us one way or the other.
Okay, so is the comma right or wrong? Well, it depends on who you’re trying to please. Wikipedia offers a nice list of which style guides say the comma ought to be used and which say it ought not to, and there’re some heavy hitters on both sides. Historical usage is also divided: An Exact Diary of the Late Expedition of His Illustrious Highness the Prince of Orange, (now King of Great Britain) from His Palace at the Hague, to His Arrival at White-Hall (1689) uses the comma, but The History of the Rebellions in England, Scotland and Ireland (1691) rebels against it. Others are more irresolute about the comma, occasionally using it, occasionally spurning it; Dud Dudley’s Mettallum Martis (orig. 1665, reprinted 1854) is one such example. This 17th-century indecision continues to the present day.
Once more you may ask, perhaps somewhat pleadingly this time, “So is the comma right or wrong?” Or perhaps you have already realized the truth: like so many other grammatical concerns, this one is a nothing, a trifle, a batrachomyomachy. It doesn’t matter which one you use, really. It never has. Follow your heart and let others follow theirs. Mine led me to the comma while my mother’s turned her from it, and yet we still can attend a garage sale without fisticuffs. At least until we both see something we want.
Summary: The Oxford or serial comma has been in use for centuries, but omitting it has always been fine as well. To this day the debate rages, but the fact of the matter is that both are common, and neither is without its flaws. Go with what you like, and feel free to switch around if you need or want to.