3 Confessions of an Oxford Comma Lover (and Why I Hate Lists)
I love the Oxford comma. Or at least I used to.
Like any good amateur grammarian, I used to scoff at those who didn’t use the Oxford comma. I invoked the usual argument:
Who could disagree with this?? There are times, I would argue, when the Oxford comma makes perfect grammatical sense! Times when it’s ambiguous without the comma! How could everyone not see that?! At its very worst, the Oxford comma makes things more clear! It’s not hurting anything. Why would anyone opt for less clarity (indeed, if not outright chaos!) when there is an equally correct, far less ambiguous alternative?
I was a zealot; an Oxford comma missionary flicking holy water on the backward and barbaric heathens around me. On the first day of my current job (marketing at a tech start-up), I asked about the company policy on Oxford commas:
“Behold,” spoke my boss. “There be no Oxford comma in this land.” And lo, for alas I was cast down and smote upon the mountain. I said unto myself, “This is a Godless place. Here be dragons.”
I’m paraphrasing of course. My boss made it clear: no Oxford comma.
However, I must thank my boss and his anti-Oxford comma ways. By being forced to omit the Oxford comma, I have come to see the light on why the absence of an Oxford comma is often preferable. I would not consider myself a full-scale convert — I still use the Oxford comma in my usual nonfiction writing (more on that later) — but I do appreciate both sides of the argument. I am now an Oxford comma pacifist, and I would like to express three arguments against the Oxford comma from the perspective of a former Oxford comma apologist. I was lost, but now I see. Teach the controversy.
1. The Oxford Comma is Redundant and Inelegant
In a list, the “listing” comma replaces “and.” Therefore, the Oxford comma is a tad redundant: “I went to the store to buy milk, cheese, and eggs” could be rewritten as “I went to the store to buy milk and cheese and and eggs.” Note the double “and” preceding “eggs” (the brain has a bad habit of missing things like that).
Of course, a tad bit of redundancy isn’t the end of the world. Certainly ambiguity is worse than redundancy, right? The lesser of two evils is certainly a clear albeit inelegant sentence, right?
My answer to this is… sort of. As I mentioned above, I still use the Oxford comma in my nonfiction writing. Yes, in this case, clarity trumps elegance. But what if there was a third alternative? An alternative that was neither ambiguous nor redundant? That would be the best of all.
2. The Oxford Comma is Often a Crutch for Lazy Writing
The alternative is simply to write unambiguous lists. If the Oxford comma is necessary to make a list clear, either rewrite the list or break out the elements into their own independent clauses or sentences. Let me explain.
There are three ways the lack of an Oxford comma makes a list ambiguous.
The first way the lack of an Oxford comma makes a list ambiguous: if the final two elements appear to be modifiers of the first element. In other words, is the sentence a noun followed by a two-part appositive phrase/dependent clause, or is the sentence an equal series of elements? Keep in mind, this is only ambiguous in a list of three — anything longer than three and there’s no ambiguity. (Unless you think the writer simply forgot the final “and” in a list where the last element has modifiers. If you ever write a sentence like this, go home and reconsider your life choices.)
Let’s look at the classic example — “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” With the Oxford comma, it’s clear that three different groups were invited to the party. Without it (“we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin”), it appears the “JFK” and “Stalin” are modifying “strippers”! How hilarious!
Let’s break this down. First, this ambiguity only arises with lists of nouns in which the antepenultimate element is plural or the final two elements are ambiguously adjectival (for example: “I invited Nelson Mandela, a coin collector and an Olympic gymnast”). It’s hardly ambiguous with other parts of speech (unless you regularly describe an adjective with other adjectives or verbs with other verbs).
This sentence becomes unambiguous if you simply reorder the elements: “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.” This sentence is now equally clear with or without the Oxford comma. Done.
The second way the lack of an Oxford comma makes a list ambiguous: if an element of a list has multiple parts.
Let’s look at another classic example: “For breakfast, I had eggs, orange juice, and toast.” With the Oxford comma, your breakfast consisted of three independent things. Without the Oxford comma (“For breakfast, I had eggs, orange juice and toast.”) it appears the toast and orange juice go together! How hilarious! Was the toast dipped in the orange juice?? Was the orange juice poured over the toast?? Hardy-har-har.
Here’s the problem with that interpretation: it’s wrong. If you’re assuming the orange juice and toast go together, you’re also assuming that the sentence is written incorrectly. You’re assuming the author forgot an “and” before orange juice. (“For breakfast, I had eggs and orange juice and toast.” 99 times out of 100 this would be written, “For breakfast, I had eggs and orange juice with toast.” That would have been a problematic sentence anyway, but not because of the Oxford comma.)
Even ignoring that issue, I sincerely doubt any sane person reading this sentence thinks that orange juice and toast go together. It’s very obviously a list of three discrete elements. The ambiguity is so inane and so insignificant that I would prefer to use fewer commas. More commas means more clutter.
Ben Yagoda of the University of Delaware once made fun of the New Yorker for their liberal use of similarly unhelpful commas. I love The New Yorker (and their phenomenal copy editor, Mary Norris, who has a great video series called “Comma Queen”), but their comma usage is notoriously overzealous. Quoting from the New York Times:
The New Yorker has always been scrupulous, bordering on fetishistic, about commas, in large part because of its founder Harold Ross’s mania for precision and clarity. E.B. White, who was subject to the magazine’s editing for more than five decades, remarked in a Paris Review interview, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” There are many examples, but one particular comma use is consistently and pretty much only found in The New Yorker. An example is a sentence from an article by Jane Mayer in the double issue dated Feb. 13 and 20:
Before [Lee] Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret over the “naked cruelty” he had shown to [Michael] Dukakis in making “Willie Horton his running mate.”
No other publication would put a comma after “died” or “cancer.” The New Yorker does so because otherwise (or so the thinking goes), the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.
That is nutty, of course.
While Yagoda isn’t lampooning the Oxford comma, his point is well taken: does adding more commas to alleviate nonexistent ambiguities help or hurt the sentence? While those commas are technically correct, they do more harm than they fix, and I would rather omit them entirely. The same is true of the Oxford comma in the “For breakfast…” example. Considering how little ambiguity they mitigate; they are indeed “nutty.”
But what if two elements in a list do go together? “I had dinner with Steve, Joey, and mom and dad.” Mom and Dad came to dinner together. They’re a package deal. This list is a bit confusing because, without the Oxford comma, it appears there is an extra “and.” With the Oxford comma, it’s more clear that “mom and dad” are a single element.
The trick here is threefold: first, just avoid lists in which the elements have more than one part. This is bad practice and might confuse the reader regardless of the commas. Second, put the multipart element elsewhere in the list, perhaps, “I had dinner with mom and dad, Steve and Joey.” Third, invoke the ampersand. The ampersand is merely a stronger “and,” so it works to alleviate ambiguity in lists. “I had dinner with mom & dad, Steve and Joey.” This pulls mom and dad together and makes it clear they are one element.
The third way the lack of an Oxford comma makes a list ambiguous: if the elements in the list are so long (perhaps dependent clauses) that the reader gets confused between elements. The easiest place to find lists like this at any technology company’s About Us page. For example, take this company description from an unnamed cybersecurity firm:
We enable you to protect your information, your infrastructure, and your employees from physical and digital threats found outside your network perimeter. We’re constantly looking for any indications of compromise or risk to your business — whether its proprietary data leaked via a breach or third-party vendor, plans for attacks against your network, or threats of physical harm to your CEO. Through continuous, comprehensive monitoring of millions of online data sources, along with sophisticated technical and human analysis, we provide our clients with the combination of data, tools, analysis, investigation, and response services that best meet their business needs, and deliver an intelligence-led approach to security.
First of all, this paragraph averages one list per sentence (hint: that’s not great). That last sentence is a grade-A pseudo-run-on that took me several reads to fully parse out (it boasts an appositive within an appositive, 17 words & two commas before the subject of the sentence, a 5-element list, and a dependent clause appended so awkwardly that I thought it was a typo). But take a look at the middle sentence: “We’re constantly looking for any indications of compromise or risk to your business — whether its proprietary data leaked via a breach or third-party vendor, plans for attacks against your network, or threats of physical harm to your CEO.” This list is so long and complex that without the Oxford comma preceding “or,” I likely would have forgotten what the subject of the sentence is. “Threats of physical harm to your CEO” is modifying either “indications” or “risks” (via the pronoun “it”) some 21–23 words after the subject. Good god.
Would this sentence be more confusing without the Oxford comma? Sure, it would. I would have forgotten that I was even reading a list. But that’s the equivalent of asking if Rosie O’Donnell would be a better professional basketball player if she bought new sneakers. It misses the point entirely — Rosie is terrible at basketball regardless of her sneakers, and that’s a terrible sentence regardless of the Oxford comma. If you’re writing lists in which the elements are so long that the reader loses track of the sentence, you have bigger problems than your comma usage. In this case, the main purpose of the Oxford comma is to remind the reader that they’re reading a list. That’s terrible. So yes, there’s no clean way to remedy the fact that the Oxford comma needs to be in this sentence. However, the better solutions is to not write this sentence in the first place.
With all three of these ambiguities in mind, the point is this: the Oxford comma is often a crutch. Sure it makes things more clear, but only if the sentence is inherently unclear to begin with. The Oxford comma is merely an indicator that a more clear sentence likely exists. It should act as a red flag.
I admit that this is not always the case. Like I said, I still use the Oxford comma in my nonfiction writing. But whenever I catch myself writing the Oxford comma, I first ask if the sentence can be worded more clearly or broken up. If the revision will harm the sentence, I default to the Oxford comma. If not, I have a better sentence.
3. The Oxford Comma Doesn’t Solve the Problem of Lists
I am proud to say that, thus far, I have written this post with only a single list. I hate lists. I especially hate lists with long individual elements (see the About Us sentence above). Lists like this always feel so contrived and forced. As if you don’t have a better way of expressing a handful of independent ideas, so you’re just going to drop them all at once. Lists with long elements can usually be broken out into several sentences. If an element in a list can’t stand alone in its own sentence, is it crucial to the piece? Can it be deleted? Whenever I see a list in my own writing, I ask myself if any of the elements can either be cut or if they deserve own independent clause. The answer is almost always yes.
The Oxford comma gives power to bad lists, and emboldens weak sentences to become “correct.” Bad lists feed off the Oxford comma. Lists should either not happen in most writing, or if they do, the elements should be so short and concrete that no ambiguity could exist anyway.
One of the ancient Roman’s favorite literary devices is the tricolon, which is essentially a fancy name for a series with three elements; often a list. Tri of course means “three,” and a cola means “part” or “member.” The generic non-numerical term for a series of parts is isocolon (iso means “equal”).
The most famous example of a Latin tricolon is veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Latin loves its tricolons, but it particularly loves a rising tricolon. A rising tricolon is any tricolon in which the final element is somehow different from the first two, either juxtaposed in theme/importance (“I came, I saw, I conquered” works because “conquered” is more powerful and striking than “came” or “saw”), or in linguistic complexity/length (“I came, I saw, I danced until the sun came up”). Read anything by Ovid or Cicero and you will find more than your share of rising tricolons.
Keep in mind that in all their tricolons, the Romans never used the Oxford, and they seem to have done just fine as far as literature goes! (Just kidding. The Romans didn’t use the Oxford comma because they didn’t have commas at all. In fact, for most of their history, they didn’t even have the concept of spaces between words, which we consider a fundamental element to comprehending writing. I digress.)
The Bible, on the other hand, prefers the bicolon, which contains two elements instead of three:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.
Notice all the “and”s connecting independent clauses. This section from Genesis is simply four bicolons strung together. It gives it that matter-of-fact, cause-and-effect simplicity that is a hallmark of the Bible.
Cormac McCarthy (and admittedly tons of other fiction writers) has solved the problem of lists. McCarthy has simply done away with the listing comma entirely and replaced it with its atavistic counterpart: “and.” As we established above, the purpose of a listing comma is to act as a surrogate for “and” which would otherwise make for awkward, inelegant lists. (“I went to the store to buy milk and eggs and cheese and cookies and bread and muffins.” You sound like a child.)
However, throwing away the listing comma in tricolons works extremely well in fiction. For instance, take this line from McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (the best book I have ever read, for the record):
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification.
That sentence has the driving, emphatic forcefulness of a biblical bicolon with the poetic flare of a Latin tricolon. The “and”s ensure that each element is read deliberately. Brilliant. Or this line, from McCarthy’s The Road:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
The final sentence (eh, fragment…) is a classic rising tricolon, but again, told with definitive matter-of-factness.
With all this in mind, I have three loose rules when I write fiction (in writing, rules should always be loose):
- In general, avoid lists.
- Rarely use the listing comma; use “and” instead.
- Rarely (if ever) write lists with more than 3 elements (tetracolons or worse).
I have found a number of examples for tetracolons or longer strung together with “and”s. This can work if the sentence is meant overwhelming and freight-train-esque.
These rules work for fiction, but what about more formal writing? Poets and novelists can get away with replacing the listing comma with “and”, but for a journalist or content marketer, that line from McCarthy is simply grammatically incorrect.
The short answer is that lists are more acceptable in formal or technical writing. They are less offensive to read. Any marketer will tell you that lists are their favorite tool to get lots of juicy information across in a single sentence. However, that’s not to say there aren’t best practices to using lists. The number of elements in the list has a huge impact on the tone of the list. Depending on what you’re trying to convey in the list, you ought to be deliberate about how many elements you include.
To illustrate this, I am going to quote at length from Roy Peter Clark’s incredible book Writing Tools (Clark intentionally does not use the word “rules” — again, rules should be loose). I highly recommend the book to everyone, but certain those who write on regular basis. The following is from a chapter called Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
“That girl is smart.”
In this simple sentence, the writer declares a single defining characteristic of the girl, her intelligence. The reader must focus on that. It is this effect of unity, single-mindedness, no-other-alternativeness, that characterizes the language of one. We know that girl is smart, but what happens when we learn:
“That girl is smart and sweet.”
The writer has altered our perspective on the world. The choice for the reader is not between smart and sweet. Instead, the writer forces us to hold these two characteristics in our mind at the same time. We have to balance them, weigh them against each other, compare and contrast them.
The dividing magic of number two turns into what one scholar calls the “encompassing” magic of number three.
“That girl is smart, sweet, and determined.”
As this sentence grows, we are influenced to see the girl in a more well-rounded way. Rather than simplify her as smart, or divide her as smart and sweet, we now triangulate the elements of her character.
In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four. Part of the magic of three is that it offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. Once we add a fourth or fifth detail we have achieved escape velocity, breaking out of the circle of wholeness:
“That girl is smart, sweet, determined, and neurotic.”
We can add descriptive elements to infinity. Four or more examples create a list, but not a complete inventory. Four or more details in a passage can offer a flowing, literary effect that the best writers have created since Homer listed the names of the Greek ships. Consider the beginning of Jonathan Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn”:
“Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s.”
If we check these sentences against our theory of numbers, it would reveal this pattern: 1–2–5–1. In the first sentence the author declares a single idea, stated as the absolute truth. In the second, he gives the reader two imperative verbs. In the third, he spins five metaphors. In the final sentence, the writer returns to a definitive declaration so important he casts it in italics.
Use one for power.
Use two for comparison, contrast.
Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
I love this. It makes so much sense. Be smart with how you use the language of numbers. I advise our salespeople to be deliberate in their emails to prospects or clients: use threes and fours when talking about the capabilities of our product, but twos when comparing us to our competitors. When describing the company itself, use either threes or ones. So on and so forth.
I still firmly believe, however, that lists are generally ugly, and they should be avoided. My theory is that much of the controversy around Oxford commas stems from an unconscious, Freudian uncomfortableness with lists themselves. The best way to avoid the Oxford comma issue is to not write any lists at all.
So Is the Comma War Over?
No. Not at all. But I wouldn’t want it to end anytime soon. One side is not right or wrong, they simply have different values when approaching language. I would say that the Oxford comma is more grammatical but less elegant. In this way, each writer can pick and choose whether or not to use it. It’s simply one more choice the writer gets to make on the path to expressing themselves.
I am a firm believer in a descriptivist approach language. Descriptivism is the theory that linguistics “rules” — i.e. proper spelling, correct grammar, what is considered slang, etc — should be fluid and should follow, or “describe,” common language, not the other way around. They opposite idea, prescriptivism, holds that pre-established and agreed upon rules should dictate what is deemed correct or proper. In a descriptivist view of the word, common mistakes or linguistic discrepancies should not conform to what is the rule, but the rules should eventually conform to what is common.
The Oxford comma controversy thrives in a descriptivist world, which I think is great. Teach the controversy. Let the people choose. Maybe eventually one side will win, but only over generations; only over the evolution of language itself. Until then, revel in the fact that you get to pick which you want to use and why.
Descriptivism doesn’t say that all grammar should be thrown to the wind (although go for it if you want to). Institutions should have policies on how to write, what buzzwords are tolerable (an internal thesaurus), and whether or not to use the Oxford comma (so meta right now). As the keeper of all language for my company, trust me, this is no easy task. Once you pick what’s right for a specific organization, document, story, book, publication, genre, or whatever, stick to your guns. Remember that you can still change it up on the next piece you write — like I said, I don’t use the Oxford comma in fiction, but I do in nonfiction; that is my policy and I stick to it.
Within a piece of writing, be consistent. Everyone agrees that consistency is key. So whether you’re an Oxford comma apologist or assailant, come and break bread at the table of consistency. Here we can all dine together.