Saturday, July 30, 2016

Your defence of the Oxford comma sucks

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the comma before the last item of a list. Some people usually put it in; some people usually leave it out. It’s the comma that appears in the first but not the second of these:

Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Tom, Dick and Harry.

I usually leave it out. When I was a little boy being taught how to use commas, I was taught the style that leaves it out. I got into the habit before I knew there was an alternative, and I haven’t seen a good reason to change. I’ve changed other writing habits I was taught as a child; for example, I was taught to type two spaces after a full stop, and to write “realise” and “jeopardise” instead of “realize” and “jeopardize”. Now I put one space after a full stop and write “realize” and “jeopardize”. I won’t bore you with the reasons for these changes, though if you’re keen then there are people to bore you with them here and here. Some people think there are also good reasons to buy into the Oxford comma. Their reasons are silly.

The standard Oxonian argument rests on the ambiguity of phrases like the following:

I’d like to thank my parents, Marilyn Monroe and God.
We invited the lion tamers, Stalin and Nelson Mandela.

These phrases are ambiguous between their intended readings and ones that imply that Marilyn Monroe and God are the speaker’s parents and that Stalin and Nelson Mandela are the lion tamers. The Oxford comma would remove this ambiguity. The argument doesn’t work, for four reasons.

First, the examples are made up. If you want to show that not using the Oxford comma causes problems, the best evidence would be instances of it causing problems. If people never used the anti-Oxonian style, the use of hypothetical examples would be understandable. But lots of people use that style, and if it’s a problem then their use should supply evidence of this.

Second, the examples are not ambiguous in context. We all know that context usually removes ambiguity, and context includes common knowledge among speakers and listeners. It also includes expectations about the sort of thing people are likely to be saying. We know that Marilyn Monroe and God are not your parents and you wouldn’t say they were, and this removes the ambiguity. Ambiguous examples would be ones like these:

I’d like to thank my parents, Steve and Michelle.
We invited the lion tamers, Steve and Michelle.

But those examples aren’t the ones people use to defend the Oxford comma, and that’s another reason their defence of it sucks.

Third, the fact that using the Oxford comma would sometimes remove an ambiguity does not mean you have to use it all the time. It is quite normal to use optional extra commas or other punctuation when leaving them out would make for problematic ambiguity. Every sensible writer does this, unless their punctuation style is already maximally comma-heavy and so there are no optional extra commas to add. It’d probably be sensible to use an Oxford comma in the examples above about Steve and Michelle, or to rephrase them if you intended the other readings. But the argument that you should always use the Oxford comma because sometimes it resolves ambiguity and you should punctuate all your lists the same way would lead to a maximally comma-heavy style in general, and nobody wants that. (Well, maybe the New Yorker wants that, but nobody else does. I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, but I disagree with their style guru Mary Norris about almost everything.) And even if you’re willing to bite the maximally comma-heavy bullet, it won’t do any good. When lists contain items which themselves include commas, you eventually have to start separating them with semi-colons or the writing will be incomprehensible. Not even the New Yorker advocates separating all items in all lists with semi-colons, just to maintain consistency with a practice that is occasionally necessary.

Fourthly, all the made-up examples can be easily changed into ammunition against the Oxford comma.

I’d like to thank my parents, Marilyn Monroe and God.
I’d like to thank my mother, Marilyn Monroe, and God.
We invited the lion tamers, Stalin and Nelson Mandela.
We invited a lion tamer, Stalin, and Nelson Mandela.

Here’s an example of this ambiguity occurring in the wild:

Oxford comma obama a republican.png

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