For a long while now, I’ve been in a kind-of-sort-of debate/not-debate with a long distance poet friend of mine over the Oxford Comma. This friend, Shaindel, and I have never met in person, but the argument goes like this: “We’d be perfect for each other if only I would use the Oxford comma.” She is firmly on the side of always using the Oxford Comma while I am – let’s say – comma flexible.
I’m not opposed to the use of the Oxford comma. It is, indeed, needed in order to provide clarity . . . sometimes. The problem is that it is not needed in certain contexts, and most of the examples floated around as memes to illustrate the need for an Oxford comma are sorely lacking in validity.
A normal person might give the whole thing a rest and let it be, but I’m a bit pedantic sometimes. Also, as a writer who will often spend an hour fiddling with one sentence in one of my stories, comma use is of particular interest to me. There are the standard, approved uses and then there are the artistic uses for things like dramatic pauses, rhythm, pacing, etc. Your high school English teacher may have tried to beat the run-on sentences out of you, but I sometimes find run-ons useful as a form of mimesis (rapid continuous thought, rapid continuous action, and even slow, stream of consciousness musings).
Years of instruction in English based on the personal preferences of an Eighteenth Century Anglican Bishop, and those who took his opinions too deeply to heart, have made us think English is one of strict, unbending rules: don’t split infinitives, don’t dangle participles, don’t end sentences with a preposition, avoid double negatives, and so on. Generally, yes, the rules should be followed (the dangling participle/modifier one is a good example of a rule that should be followed in nearly all cases), but context can often excuse, or even negate, some of those rules – especially in English. In English, word order is perhaps the most important rule to follow and, in a way, it’s the least subjective of the rules. It kind of makes English a free-for-all in other regards. So, as someone who more or less naturally follows the rules, but has always had trouble articulating them, finding out that English is a free-for-all as long as the words are in the right order was revelatory and liberating.
One thing to complicates all of this is that English is an “analytic” language that no longer has a case system. Everything in English basically collapsed into the nominative case during the roughly 300 years that English disappeared from the written record after the Norman Invasion. Before 1066, English had a case system similar to German (English is a Germanic language after all, even now). The generative plural “s” ending is all that’s left of the Old English case system. That lack of a case system is why English has to rely on word order to create meaning in our sentences. “He bit a dog” makes sense in English, but “Dog a bit he” is nearly gibberish. In “synthetic” languages, those languages with a case system (German, French, Spanish, Russian, etc.), the word order in a sentence is more flexible as long as the words (nouns, adjectives, articles and pronouns) are given the proper endings to match them to the appropriate direct or indirect object (the thing acting, or the thing receiving the action) and the sentence’s case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, etc.) (see here).
Furthermore, punctuation is a tool of written language, not spoken language. In spoken language we use pauses, hand gestures, and body language to effectively “punctuate” sentences. Punctuation in writing is there to keep things clear, but just because punctuation can sometimes appear to clear up confusion on the page, it doesn’t actually clear up the more basic confusion when spoken. And remember, a living language is always struggling with a state of orthographic lag – that is, the difference between the way the language is spoken and the way the language is written. Although that concept doesn’t really apply here, I mention it only to reinforce the idea that, even if there was no lag between spoken and written language, word order is still more important than punctuation.
So, now let’s look at the joke sentences often used to make the supposed case for “always” using the Oxford comma.
These are the three most common joke sentences I’ve seen that propose to illustrate the requirement that the Oxford Comma be used at all times:
“I’ll bring the strippers, Lenin and Kennedy.”
“I’d like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”
“I like eating, my friends and family.”
Speak those sentences out loud. You might mentally project an Oxford comma into those sentences when you speak them, but that doesn’t mean the listener will register it, and so the confusion persists.
The bigger flaw in those sentences is that they are intentionally out of context and, more importantly, intentionally in a bad order.
In the first two, we have a plural noun (strippers, parents) followed by two proper nouns. The “joke” here is based on a purposeful erasure of context that then creates confusion about how to read the sentence. The pro-Oxford comma people want you to read the sentences as a list of individuals (X number of strippers, plus someone named Lenin, plus someone else named Kennedy – a set of parents, plus God, plus Ayn Rand), but are taking advantage of the words being placed in an order that allows the sentence to be read as an introduction of two people (Lenin and Kennedy, and God and Ayn Rand,) who fall into a category (strippers, and parents). In other words, the syntax in those sentences is the syntax is that of the introduction of couples or pairs – “Here are the strippers, Lenin and Kennedy.” – “Meet my parents, God and Ayn Rand.” – “Our specials today are my friends and family.”
Purposely created confusion is no reason to force or demand the use of a comma.
If we rewrite the sentences keeping the intended context in mind – and use the appropriate syntax for providing a list of things we’re bringing or a list of people we’re thanking, then we erase the contextual confusion, and the need for an Oxford comma becomes legitimately debatable – – especially in a short list.
“I’ll bring Lenin, Kennedy, and the strippers.” (Oxford comma)
“I’ll bring Lenin, Kennedy and the strippers.” (AP Style)
Now it’s clear, with or without the Oxford comma, that the speaker is bringing two named individuals and an unknown number of unnamed strippers. The only question we have now is the relation between Kennedy and the strippers. Are they separate? Is Kennedy their manager? Or is “Kennedy and the Strippers” a band name? But those questions are not as funny as drawing Vladimir Lenin and John Kennedy in garters and stockings. Now, our next sentence will be rewritten.
“I’d like to thank God, Ayn Rand, and my parents.” (Oxford)
“I’d like to thank God, Ayn Rand and my parents.” (AP Style)
Now it’s clear this person was abused as a child and is now a master of ignoring their cognitive dissonance, and not someone struggling under the delusion they were born of a deity and a selfish, raging twat waffle.
In the cannibal sentence, we’ve got a verb acting as a noun (gerund) first, followed by two nouns (OR, we’ve got a cannibal that incorrectly used a comma). Again, it’s a forced contextual confusion. The supposed joke comes from inserting a comma so that the reader is forced to wonder if the word “eating” should be read as a verb, or a noun. Into this confusion steps the Oxford comma champions who say that placing another comma in the mix will miraculously make the word “eating” clearly understood to be a noun. But what if you’ve actually got a cannibal’s confession and that cannibal either doesn’t understand how punctuation works or is purposefully trying to obfuscate?
If we place this list of favorite things in an order to match the context in which they might be logically used, then the sentence is clear with or without the Oxford comma because now the verb/noun confusion is irrelevant.
“I like my friends, family, and eating.” (Oxford)
“I like my friends, family and eating.” (AP Style)
Eating what, we don’t know. It could still be this person likes to eat his friends and family, but at least the list is in a clearer order.
Relying on the Oxford comma to fix a problem created by a confusion of context and syntax, is lazy, sloppy writing. I’m more offended by lazy, sloppy writing (and speaking) than I am about the placement of punctuation that is the equivalent of bacon bits on a salad.
To continue with the context issue, let me say that I can hear all the Oxford Comma champions clicking away on their keyboards hunting for the recent news article about the court case that was decided solely based on a missing serial comma (here, I’ve found it for you (link)).
Let me be clear: the Oxford comma is essential . . . sometimes . . . and, sometimes, it’s a matter of style. Context matters. Especially when making a joke.
In sentences where all things in a list are of the same grammatical class (parallelism), but a distinction is needed to ensure separation of the items on the list, then an Oxford comma is, absolutely needed (Hi Shaindel). In fact, let’s use the sentence in question from the recent court decision that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford Comma (that final, serial comma).
Here’s the offending sentence:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agriculturally produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
First thing to notice here is that there is no combination of gerunds and regular nouns, no combination of plural nouns and proper nouns. Everything in the list is a verb – an action. As you should know, this is parallelism (see def. #3). Changing the order won’t fix the problem created by the missing serial comma. The problem is that, without the final serial comma after shipment, the intended understanding that “packing for shipment” and “distribution of” are separate acts is made unclear. The lack of a comma makes everything after “storing” read as a phrase describing a single act, i.e. the “packing for shipment or distribution.” Even if the sentence had used “and” instead of “or” the result would be the same. In the court case, that was enough to exclude truck drivers who don’t, of course, pack the food either for shipment or distribution. The truck drivers only distribute the food. The contract had intended to cover the drivers, so distribution needed to be understood as separate from packing. If the serial comma had been used, that would have been the case.
Now, let’s see if I can simplify it in a way similar to our joke sentences because, well, I’m a pedantic ass like that. And yeah, it probably won’t be funny.
Here’s my sentence, with a list that contains grammatically similar words:
“When I die, send my two cats to Alice, Ted, and Sarah.”
Wait? What? Following the rules of the Oxford comma police, it looks like I’ll have to cut one of the cats in half, right?
What happens if I take out that Oxford comma? “When I die, send my two cats to Alice, Ted and Sarah.
Phew! Now we might be able to assume that Ted and Sarah are, most likely a couple – a single unit – and they will be sharing one of the cats whole.
I know. Nuance is nitpicky and it kills the funny of an internet meme. I’m a horrible person, and Shaindel and I will never move in together with our Squatty Potties and our Love Toilet (that’s a way, way inside-ish joke).