The Oxford Comma, or the Limits of Expectation

Why talk about the Oxford comma? Surely everything has already been saidsung, or drawn. But why even have a blog if you can’t use it to share your great love of the Oxford comma? More importantly, its use comes up in all my classes; if I say ‘comma’ to a room of graduate students, someone will immediately ask whether it’s right or wrong to put a comma after the penultimate item in a list. I can explain both sides of the issue, but I cannot, in the end, answer the ‘right or wrong’ part of the question. Which leads me to another reason to talk about it: the very fact that there’s no simple answer to the question is instructive for the way we think about issues of style in our academic writing. Before delving into this topic, let’s look at what the Oxford comma actually is.

The first thing to note is that it is properly called a ‘serial comma’, the comma that appears before the conjunction in a list.

Peace, love, and happiness

Do you put a comma after ‘love’ or don’t you? That’s what my students want to know. Actually, that question is pretty easy—I do, always. The harder question—and the one they care about—is whether you should put a comma there. That’s the question that can’t be answered on the grounds of correctness. Both are correct, unless you are writing for a particular journal or press with a stated preference. Since most of my students are primarily concerned with writing their theses, they often have to make this decision themselves. And so they want a definitive answer. After I give a full accounting of the subtle pleasures and perils of the serial comma, someone is sure to say, while stifling a yawn, ‘so should we use it or not?’. Again, either way is fine, but here is a summary of my non-answer.

1. Despite the name and the song, the Oxford comma isn’t more formal. Students often tell me that they think it’s inessential but probably a good idea for a formal piece of writing. In truth, however, the serial comma is neither formal nor particularly stuffy. It’s not even more British: its presence in the Oxford style guide notwithstanding, it’s much more common in the US than in the UK. The only way in which it’s more formal is that it isn’t generally used in newspapers where narrow columns mean that space is at a premium.

2. All the evidence about ambiguity can cut both ways, but in ordinary academic writing—in which internally complex list items are routine—the serial comma will help more often than it hinders.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture and finance.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture, and finance.

In this case, I think that using the serial comma is the easiest way to show what goes with what. I also recommend using semicolons when list items get unruly, and those are always used serially. Overall, avoiding ambiguity is our responsibility as writers. If commas can’t help us, then we need to reword; that is, there are many instances in which the problem is not the presence or absence of the serial comma, but rather the awkwardness of the list itself.

During diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

During diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

Measurements of medication levels are often essential during diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies.

While the second version avoids the obvious potential for misreading found in the first, the third may be better overall. I’ve written it with the serial comma, but it would, of course, be fine without.

3. Even if neither option is wrong, it’s still a good idea to make a decision. That is, just because both options are correct doesn’t make flipping back and forth desirable. Consistency is a useful principle when making style decisions. Doing the same things the same way every time is a kindness to your readers—since they will be saved the bother of wondering about stylistic inconsistencies–and a kindness to yourself—since you’ll be saved the bother of wondering what’s right each time. Some people will use the serial comma only when ambiguity might result from not using it, but I think that practice can potentially confuse the reader.

It took me a long time to get over my belief that the serial comma was inherently better. I believed this for years, and that was before I went to work for Oxford University Press, where it is house style. My editorial eyes are deeply attuned to it, and its absence trips me up every single time. But that just shows the limits of our own expectations. The serial comma is only better in a world where it is expected to appear. The only surefire solution is a world in which everyone does everything the same way, which is implausible and slightly creepy. The best we can do is choose our way and stick to it consistently, so our readers—consciously or unconsciously—become accustomed to our punctuation habits. Again, this is why I don’t like the practice of using a serial comma only when it’s obviously beneficial; inconsistency undermines our reader’s ability to becoming habituated to our writing style.

While the Oxford comma may seem more like a punchline than a punctuation mark at this point, I think that there is something important in this conversation. Writing requires us to make choices far more often than it demands simple rule following. And those choices should be made based on our best understanding of style conventions and reader expectations. The serial comma shows us the limits of expectation, but it also confirms the importance of making informed and consistent decisions about academic writing style.

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One response to “The Oxford Comma, or the Limits of Expectation

  1. New PhD student.

    I was very surprised recently when I submitted my first paper of my PhD to an Australian journal. In the copy edit phase, they removed all of my Oxford commas and changed my Australian (British) spelling to US spelling.
    Ouch.

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