Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Set Your Commas Free!

with 8 comments

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.

Written by Nathanael Green

February 19, 2009 at 12:41 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Nate,

    All hail the serial comma!

    Just kidding. Your approach makes more sense to me.

    I do wonder if this is one of those grammatical issues that’s overblown. Like most of them. I’m not saying YOU’RE overblowing it, just that others have done so. The example, “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” literally means the speaker’s parents are Ayn Rand and God. But anyone familiar with the person speaking knows that Ayn Rand and God probably aren’t his/her parents and won’t be confused by the statement. Hell, anyone unfamiliar with the person speaking probably doesn’t read that sentence and think “the speaker’s parents are Ayn Rand and God,” unless they’re just being a grammatical stickler.

    Besides, Ayn Rand didn’t have any children, and depending on whom you ask, God didn’t either :)

    I liken this issue somewhat to the comma separating independent clauses. In American English, a comma “must” be used to separate clauses containing their own subjects and verbs. In British English, I don’t think the comma has to be used. Anyone that’s too much a stickler for the American rules will claim that certain passages written in British English are made incomprehensible without that comma. But that’s only because they’re used to seeing the comma in American English. I myself find reading sentences with or without the “independent clause comma,” or whatever it’s more appropriately called, to be just as comprehensible either way.

    So I think the point, which you already made much more intelligently, is that the rules aren’t always necessary. Let common sense be the guide.

    Brian O'Rourke

    February 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    • Brian, I think you’re right. Things like this easily become overblown. And the differences in using or not using a comma are really minute, and often clarified by simple context.

      That’s why I’m an advocate of flexibility. On those rare occasions where it does make a difference in meaning or could make that meaning unambiguous, I’d hope people don’t feel trapped by a particular style.

      It’s all about freedom, brother. ;-)

      Nathanael Green

      February 20, 2009 at 3:58 am

  2. Hi Nate. We’ve never been introduced, but I’ve heard a lot about you from Liz Corcoran and the rest of the Rosemont gang. I’m loving your blog. I found it through Shawn Proctor’s blog. And I completely agree about the Oxford comma (and thanks, that Vampire Weekend song will be in my head for the rest of the night!) – I NEVER use it. I’ve been a copywriter for years and I just pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Would it be okay for me to link your blog to mine?

    Hope to meet you soon!

    Holly Anzuena
    (MFA Rosemont grad)


    February 19, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    • Holly,

      I have to say that that VW song has been stuck in my head for two days! What’s your blog about? I’m always looking for other good writing sites to check out.

      Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you at Rosemont soon!


      Nathanael Green

      February 20, 2009 at 4:05 am

  3. Hi Nate,

    My blog is about all things creative and I’m just getting started. I’m trying to include sites, blogs and projects from talented people I know and basically anything that inspire me. I’m not really 100% sure if my blog follows whatever blog rules that may be out here, but I’m loving having another outlet.


    February 20, 2009 at 2:30 pm

  4. Holly,

    As far as content, I’d say there aren’t any rules to blogging. Not that I’m an expert by any means, considering I’ve got about ten people that occasionally check out my blog.


    Brian O'Rourke

    February 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm

  5. All right, I outted myself as a fan of the oxford comma on Facebook so perhaps I should flame you.

    “Strunk, White! Slice, dice, and burn Nate!”

    Actually this was good food for thought. I prefer the oxford comma and use it as a general rule; still, rules were made to be broken. And true freedom comes from knowing the argument for and against the serial comma.


    P.S. “Wife Named Nate” would make a good parody of the song “Boy Named Sue.”


    February 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    • “True freedom comes from knowing the argument for and against the serial comma.”

      If only the philosophers of the past centuries had consulted with a grammarian, the human race would be way better off! ;-)

      I agree, Shawn. Knowing the rules lets you break them more efficiently.


      Nathanael Green

      February 24, 2009 at 3:19 am

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