When the topic of the Oxford comma comes up, there are typically two reactions:
- Exuberant support
- Resounding indifference
There are, however, few people who argue vociferously against the Oxford comma. I am one of those few people.
The Oxford comma is unnecessary. Here, I refute the most common arguments people repeatedly use to show the alleged necessity of the Oxford comma.
Every so often, humorous example sentences like the following make their way around the internet:
- Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
- This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
- Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
- We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
Their validity in real-world writing aside, these are no doubt funny examples – thinking of Nelson Mandela as owning a collection of dildos is sure to elicit titters of glee from many people, myself included. The people who created or discovered these are true commadians.
Paradoxically, the very humor of these examples shows that they are, in fact, not ambiguous. Anybody who knows the identities of Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall immediately understands that they are not – and cannot be – Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives. The humor is derived from this juxtaposition. Recognizing the ridiculousness of the appositive proposition simultaneously nullifies it as a logical interpretation of the sentence. The only reasonable construal is that of an enumerated series.
In response to pointing this out, some defenders of the Oxford comma would raise the objection that readers who do not know the elements of the series could potentially still be confused. As one recent defender put it, “One writes to convey information, not with the assumption that information is already known.” However, such an argument is prima facia invalid.
Reading always requires a certain level of assumed knowledge. At the very least, it assumes the reader knows how to read, which in turn presupposes knowledge of the language being read. Both of those things imply awareness of the definitions of a critical mass of words in the language, as well as practical (as opposed to academic) knowledge about the syntax and morphology of the language. By simply publishing a written thing, much knowledge on the reader’s part is inherently assumed.
In addition to language knowledge, there is a certain amount of social context that all writing frequently assumes. Some people argue that using an Oxford comma keeps the context unambiguous for future readers who do not necessarily have the same social context that present audiences do. This claim is dubious. Language itself is the result of social context, and assuming social context changes inherently assumes language will change as well. In fact, the use and meaning of punctuation does change over time – see, for example, debates about the commas in the Second Amendment. There is no guarantee that Oxford commas will offer more clarity to future readers than their absence. Furthermore, future literati, historians and others who have cause to read old texts will likely be aware of the inconsistent use of the Oxford comma, just as modern literati, historians and others are aware of punctuation differences in old works today.
Contextually speaking, reading is a heuristic process. Readers learn as they read, and their understanding is informed by the surrounding text. In examples like those above, which are taken out of context, it is impossible to tell what other information is provided in the text that might easily clear up any alleged confusion. Even when information is provided later, any potential ambiguity is temporary, since writers often employ the tactic of emergent revelation to recontextualize previous passages. In cases where there may be no additional context – such as the dedication to “my parents, Ayn Rand and God” – simple heuristics would lead the vast majority of readers to recognize the unlikelihood that Ayn Rand bore any of God’s children.
(Incidentally, it strikes me as odd that supporters of the Oxford comma don’t employ better examples to support their cause. A dedication to “my parents, Jane Smith and Sam Johnson” is more likely to cause ambiguity because readers are much less likely to know who those people are. Certainly this is a much less funny example, but it is more effective precisely for the reason that it’s not ridiculous on its face. Arguments below will show why the Oxford comma still is not necessary in such a case.)
Arguments for the Oxford comma also ignore those instances in which employing it might introduce ambiguity. For example, a dedication to “my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” would be just as ambiguous as the example above. Likewise, adding an Oxford comma to the Mandela example would still leave ambiguity with respect to his status as a demigod – assuming that’s really an ambiguous claim in the first place.
Absence of the Oxford comma is potentially ambiguous only upon two occasions:
- When the first item in a series describes a set, the criteria for which all the remaining items in the series fit.
- When the first item in the series describes an object, of which all the remaining items in the series might be considered an aspect or feature.
Looking at the common examples provided above, each fits easily into one of these two general categories: the ex-wives, strippers and parents into the first category, and Nelson Mandela into the second.
Note that ambiguity only arises when the remaining items in the series logically match all explicit and implicit criteria of the first item. There is no ambiguity if the strippers are known to be women, or if we know that there are more than two of them. Likewise, there is no ambiguity if one of the highlights of Mr. Ustinov’s trip is an inanimate object or a geographical feature, rather than a person.
For both categories, it is possible to resolve the issue simply by shifting the series sequence. For example, “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers” is immediately unambiguous and provides the same exact information. Likewise if we recast Mr. Ustinov’s trip as encountering “an 800-year-old demigod, Nelson Mandela and a dildo collector.”
It might be argued that the existing order is important due to succession. For example, Mr. Ustinov might have encountered Nelson Mandela first, followed by the demigod, with the tour ending at the dildo collector. If such is the case, simply adding an Oxford comma does not clarify this succession. Either the sentence itself would have to be modified to provide this information, or surrounding context would indicate which event occurred first. In either case, such clarification would positively identify the series and remove any potential for interpretation as an appositive. The Oxford comma is rendered unnecessary in either case.
Another argument against reordering the series might be that the series members are listed in order of importance. The person writing the dedication may have wanted to indicate that their parents had the most significant influence on them, followed by Ayn Rand and God. However, emphasis can be indicated either by placing the most significant item at the beginning or at the end. Since both are acceptable in the English language, it would be trivial to swap “my parents” and “God” to eliminate potential ambiguity while retaining significance of order.
The Only Exception…Isn’t an Exception
One might imagine a scenario in which ambiguity ensues regardless of order. For example, consider the sentence:
I had dinner with my best friends, my sisters and coworkers.
It is unclear whether “best friends,” “sisters” and “coworkers” are discrete groups, or whether the author considers her sisters her best friends and also happens to work with them. Shifting the order does not necessarily clarify the situation:
I had dinner with my sisters, my best friends and coworkers.
I had dinner with my coworkers, my sisters and best friends.
And so on. It is worth noting that the Oxford comma does not clear up ambiguity in any variation:
I had dinner with my sisters, my best friends, and coworkers.
I had dinner with my coworkers, my sisters, and best friends.
Since every sequence is ambiguous, the resolution here is not to introduce unnecessary punctuation, but to rewrite the sentence so as to avoid ambiguity. For example, if the sisters, best friends and coworkers are all the same person, a relative clause is required:
I had dinner with my sisters, who are my best friends and coworkers.
If the groups are indeed discrete, then using a different coordinating conjunction such as “along with” or “as well as” would help resolve the ambiguity.
The Last Objection
At this point, some people are viscerally denying that the Oxford comma is illogical. The last objection they have to make is, “Why should I rewrite and/or reorder my sentence just to avoid using a comma?”
This is, of course, a silly question for any writer to ask. Writers frequently rewrite and reorder their sentences to reduce ambiguity and clarify ideas. Suggesting the addition of an Oxford comma is itself such an emendation.
Any writer who suggests that they should not have to rewrite a sentence to make it clearer is arguing not from logic but from egotistical, knee-jerk reaction. Since this is not a reasonable argument, no reason is required to debunk it.
Insofar as reordering a series is any more burdensome than making any other edit, writers should take solace in the fact that the end result is slightly more concise – by one character – than the alternative of adding an unnecessary comma. Since clarity and concision together are the goal of any writing, the ability to achieve both should be lauded.
An Aesthetic Appeal
Recognizing that there are no logical reasons to employ the Oxford comma, some people may draw upon aesthetics as their final appeal.
To that I say: De gustibus non est disputandum. There’s no accounting for taste.
Just don’t try to wrap your silly preference in logic. It doesn’t work.