First of all, there is no one more horrified by that blog title than the editors and authors at the small press I run. They may well organize a mutiny as soon as this is posted. So aim your vitriol at me, not at World Weaver Press. Most of our books do employ the good ol' Oxford comma.
Second, the Oxford comma is often a Band-Aid that covers up other structural problems within a sentence. Just... hear me out, okay?
Ever since the Oxford Style Guide dropped the serial comma in 2011, there have been entertaining memes floating around the internet "proving" you need the Oxford comma to avoid ridiculous confusion.
Here are two of the most common examples:
The argument here is that without the Oxford comma, the second and third items in this list can be mistaken for a descriptive clause of the first. But consider this: what actually creates the confusion in both of these sentences is the position of a plural noun followed by two singular nouns. Rearrange the sentence so the plural isn't first, and suddenly it doesn't matter whether that comma is there or not.
We invited JFK, the strippers and Stalin.
We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.
To Ayn Rand, God and my parents.
To Ayn Rand, my parents and God.
But not all Oxford comma usage can be solved with that One Weird Trick. Here's a different Oxford comma meme, with a different issue.
Ah, my good friend the direct address comma, made famous with the "Let's eat Grandma" vs. "Let's eat, Grandma" example. Sure, lack of an Oxford comma can create the impression the speaker is addressing the people (or objects) that appear after the first comma. Except, maybe a little context and common sense is necessary? Is it likely, from the context of the sentence, that the person is actually talking to a sentient toast-and-juice monster? I mean, I work in the field of fantasy and science fiction, so it's certainly possible. However, if the speaker of this sentence is addressing a literal toast-and-juice monster, that better be established and described in the narrative leading up to this sentence. Also, the writer should probably come up with a better and more creative name for it than "toast and orange juice." At the very least, it should be capitalized. "I had eggs, Toast and Orange Juice" would signal that "Toast and Orange Juice" is a proper noun.
If it is clear from context that the speaker is not addressing sentient toast and orange juice, does the Oxford comma make this a better sentence? The truth is, with or without the comma, it's just a lazy sentence. "Had" is a weak and vague verb—it merely tells us the food existed and was in your possession. Revise it to something like "I devoured the eggs and toast, and drank three glasses of orange juice," or "I picked at the eggs and toast, and only drank half of the orange juice," and not only are the verbs more active, but we also know a lot more about what's going on. Little ol' "had" could have meant either of these scenarios, but there was no way to tell which. The Oxford comma can't fix that.
How about this one?
Let's assume this sentence does not appear in a Haralambi Markov horror story. Obviously, you need a comma after "cooking." But what about that sneaky Oxford—does a second comma actually clarify the meaning? Here it is without: "I like cooking, my family and pets." Here it is with: "I like cooking, my family, and pets." I suppose it does eliminate the impression of a direct address comma: the speaker telling their family and pets that they like cooking (which would need to be rewritten anyway because it would sound stilted and awkward). As with the previous example, context can probably eliminate that possibility better than a comma can.
The real confusion for me in this sentence is whether the speaker likes "pets" in general, or their own pets. Change it to "I like cooking, my family and my pets" and the meaning is more obvious. Better yet, rearrange it to "I like my family, my pets and cooking," and there's suddenly a lot less room for misinterpretation, with or without an Oxford comma.
Okay, okay, enough of these silly meme examples. Here's one from real life.
I used parentheses and a plus sign in that tweet because this is what I wrote first:
"Win a paperback copy of COVALENT BONDS, an anthology of geek romance, and a serotonin necklace."
Is the winner being promised three things or two? It's unclear whether "an anthology of geek romance" is a descriptive clause for "COVALENT BONDS" or a separate object. The commas create ambiguity that can't be fixed by rearranging the sentence or adding or subtracting commas. Different punctuation must be used. If, however, the Oxford comma were not in common usage, my original sentence would have been clear.
Look, there may very well be times when the Oxford comma is absolutely necessary. As entertaining as a lot of these examples and memes are, I remain unconvinced. I'm not here to take your Oxford commas from you, though. Keep using them, if you like them. Maybe the sentence just looks wrong to you without it. Fine! It's a style choice, after all, not a grammar rule. But each time you use an Oxford comma, consider: Do you need it? Do you really need it, or can you write a better sentence?
3/2/2017 05:32:17 pm
OXFORD COMMA TILL I DIE! And you can't make me not use it. :) Though, I admit that my strong stance regarding the serial comma is due to the fact it is a necessity as per the written style I use in the day job. As a writer and style enforcer (read: editor) there, I have to use it, and it's become second nature to me. To not use it makes me feel naked, vulnerable, and afraid. (See what I did there?)
10/19/2018 10:47:11 pm
Interesting post. I wholeheartedly agree that when a better sentence can be written it should be, however I still stand by using the comma. 🙂 It’s just too easy to misunderstand sentences without it, IMO. In any case, I wanted to reply because I really enjoyed your breakdown.
12/22/2018 09:28:57 am
12/17/2019 10:18:06 am
Pitiful trolleries about the Oxford comma are the last refuge of the imbecilic, the uneducated, and impotent keyboard warriors.
12/17/2019 10:16:08 am
But, you see, your suggested 'improvements' of sentences without the Oxford comma are inelegant and blurry. Your Oxford-comma sentences are far superior in every case. It's a pity you and your writing are this myopic.
9/14/2022 10:02:09 am
So,”If you write a different sentence, then you don’t need it.” Thank you so much.
9/14/2022 10:48:45 pm
This wwas great to read
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