Set Your Commas Free!
I have a beef with the Oxford comma.
Just to give you the background, the Oxford comma, in addition to being the title of a Vampire Weekend song, is also called the serial comma. This is where you use a comma before the final item in a list.
For example: My desk is wooden, old, and cluttered.
Notice the comma after the word old. That, my friends, is the Oxford comma. It’s promoted in a lot of writing guides including The Chicago Manual of Style and one of my all-time favorite books – Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
This comma is so important that many writers will harangue for hours about how it’s the single most important thing that makes English readable.
I think it sucks.
OK … that’s not true. It’s a perfectly appropriate thing to use on occasion. But what does suck is the idea that we must always use it.
There is an argument for the Oxford comma.
People say the serial comma clarifies the writing, and that’s often the case. There’s a famous (among word nerds) example of a dedication in a book. I don’t honestly know if it’s an actual dedication or not, but regardless, it works for illustrating the point.
For my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
In this example, without the serial comma before the word and, it’s possible to read the sentence that Ayn Rand, despite her professed atheism, copulated with God and the result was the author. The phrase clarifies who the parents are.
So insert the serial comma:
For my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Suddenly it’s clear that the author is thanking all three separately. So yes, using it can be a good idea.
But it’s not always a good idea.
Just as there are style guides that champion the serial comma, there are those that promote its exclusion just as zealously. The Associated Press is a big one. And their argument, besides the comma often being simply unnecessary, can be shown in this example.
A friend of mine sent an email recently with a sentence that went something like:
Everyone including my wife, Nate, and Mike have met her.
Using the serial comma here seems to indicate that Nate is a nonrestrictive clause modifying the previous word. Essentially, Nate is the name of his wife.
Um, bud … I know we’re close, but we’re not that close.
So this is an instance when omitting the serial comma would reduce confusion.
… my wife, Nate and Mike have met her.
Here it’s clear that it’s three different people.
The bottom line.
Clinging to serial commas like holy writ means that on occasion you’re going to make your writing less clear. But blindly using the AP style without the final comma is going mess with it just as much.
So set your commas free from the constraints of one style and use whichever makes the most sense for what you’re writing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s more important to be clear than to follow the rules.