Does the Oxford comma (put before and at the end of a list) add finesse to writing, or simply take up unnecessary space?

10 months ago Co-Written Comments Off on Does the Oxford comma (put before and at the end of a list) add finesse to writing, or simply take up unnecessary space?

I’d like to dedicate this article to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

If you had to do a double take because you thought I said that my parents were Ayn Rand and God, then you just might be a proponent of the Oxford comma. The comma before “and” at the end of the list, the Oxford comma, was present in my original draft. However, the style used in editing news articles, the Associated Press, mandates that the Oxford comma be removed, under the pretense that its inclusion is unnecessary.

Much debate circulates the use of the Oxford comma (although it should be noted that most major American editing styles, Associated Press excluded, are in favor of it). The primary argument I’ve heard against the Oxford comma is that it serves no useful grammatical function. I’d be willing to bet $10 million that this is false.

A group of dairy truck drivers did just this when their company refused to pay them overtime. According to a law, employees were exempt from overtime if they served in particular capacities, including, “packing for shipment or distribution” of certain items. The company believed that this laws applied to the drivers, asserting that they were “packing for shipment.” Little did the company realize that, without a comma separating “shipment or distribution,” the two items were grouped together. Only those who are in “packing,” for the purpose of either “shipment or distribution,” were exempt from overtime. The court decided that the company had to pay their drivers overtime, awarding them $10 million dollars. Judge David J. Barron commented, “for want of a comma, we have this case.”

The fact that the absence or presence of this somehow controversial comma can drastically change the meaning of a sentence is irrefutable. Journalists ignoring this basic grammatical function in the past has led to the humorous printings of phrases such as “Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector” and “among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” While it is true that instances of ambiguity can be re-written and worked around using the oft-debated comma, that isn’t exactly the point. You can do anything with your writing to avoid any kind of punctuation that you feel is inconvenient, but you would lose something special in the process: the artistry of the written word.

A writer who has mastered linguistic tools can use something as subtle as a comma to illustrate an idea. The concept isn’t that the Oxford comma should always be used under any given circumstance. Rather, the Oxford comma is a clever and creative way to group ideas. It’s a tool that skilled writers can have at their disposal to give life and flavor to their writing. There is a poetic elegance in shaping the meaning of a sentence not just with word arrangement, but also comma arrangement. It is a technique that no writer with an appreciation for literary craft should wantonly disregard.

Alas, artistry is not typically a consideration in the opposition to the Oxford comma. Most opposition comes from journalists, who originally opposed the comma to save space and minimize printing costs. I find that modern journalists tend to use the word “obsolete” in regards to this comma; ironic, considering that the majority of news articles now are found online, where space and printing costs aren’t an issue.

Another word I often hear is “clunky.” The mindset follows that words should be read at lightning speed, and that the presence of an added comma is jarring. From a modern perspective, in a society where patience is a waning resource, this is understandable. From a poetic standpoint, this flies in the face of the concept of cadence. Word flow should follow a certain rhythm, and commas help guide this rhythm. Think about it, don’t you usually pause before the “and” at the end of a list? Pausing creates a much more natural flow. Asking my father for his take on the subject, he said, “I utterly and completely hate when it’s left out — even when it’s not needed. It looks odd.” Clearly there are those who find not its presence, but its absence to be jarring.

I will never understand those who believe in cold-hearted efficiency over poetic finesse. Even where clarity is non-issue, there is an artistic cost to hacking literary form in the name of austere minimalism. Where clarity is an issue, I’d advise not inviting the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Patrick Bausone
pabausone@vwu.edu

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A story commonly told around the Marlin Chronicle newsroom is of a Wesleyan communications alumna dressing up as an Oxford, also known as the Harvard, comma for Halloween one year. For those who may not be aware, the Oxford comma refers to the comma placed before a conjunction at the end of a list, primarily and. Why would this communications student dress up as an Oxford comma for Halloween? Because the Oxford comma is scary to those in journalism and thought of as an added component to writing that takes up unnecessary space. The Oxford comma is not recognized in the Associated Press style of writing for this reason. Ultimately, I agree with the Associated Press and my fellow journalists that the Oxford comma is completely unnecessary in writing.

It is popularly known that the reason journalists began omitting the Oxford comma was because it took up extra space when used throughout stories. Through the simple act of removing the Oxford comma, journalists were able to conserve precious space and better fit stories into their allotted room on a page in the days of newspapers and print publications. However, just because it’s tradition doesn’t necessarily make it right. Yet, removing the Oxford comma rarely causes issues of clarity as many proponents of the comma believe and we must not let a few cases where journalists have gotten themselves in trouble for not using the Oxford comma cloud our judgement.

Batten Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the Communication Department at Virginia Wesleyan, Dr. Lisa Lyon Payne, said “in my experience most of the time eliminating the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma or serial comma, does not result in a lack of clarity.” Payne has 17 years of communication experience.

Speaking not as a communication expert, but as an ordinary reader, Payne said, “when I see an Oxford comma, it jars me as a reader. It takes me just a nanosecond longer to think about the meaning. Elimination of that comma, in my opinion, makes material clearer and more concise.” While it may only be a nanosecond longer, in our day and age every fraction of a second counts tremendously with the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The Oxford comma is simply a construction that people incorporate into their writing because it’s what they were taught in English class growing up and they are unable to think for themselves or don’t want to put in the extra work to make a sentence understandable without an Oxford comma. An article from Business Insider titled, “The Oxford Comma is Extremely Overrated,” by Gus Lupin, states the prominent examples proponents of the Oxford comma use to illustrate its importance.

This example is, “we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” as opposed to “we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” One could just as easily write, “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers. The simple reorganizing of words in this sentence causes the original meaning to be retained and proves the Oxford comma obsolete.

In closing, I know my opponent is referencing a court case from earlier this year in which the Oxford comma led to a $10million labor dispute among a group of dairy drivers arguing they were eligible for overtime pay per company policy, while the defendant corporation disagreed based on the positioning of words and lack of an Oxford comma in the phrase, “shipping and or distribution.” They assumed only those packing for the purposes of either shipping or distribution were eligible for overtime. A change of conjunction at the end or a reorganizing of the sentence as a whole would have helped to retain the original meaning.

Ashley Kline
aakline@vwu.edu