Updated July 2023
If there’s one topic that engenders the most emotion with coaching and training clients, it’s the serial or Oxford comma. We don’t even agree on it here at The Word Factory. Seriously, if you looked at unedited copy from our group, you could narrow down who wrote it simply based on commas. So my colleague Pete Andersen and I decided to duke it out right here on the blog.
Margot: I use commas sparingly. There are only two times I’ll consider it:
- If it makes the meaning clearer
- If I naturally pause or want to when I get to that part of the sentence (which is tangentially related to question 1)
Otherwise, I’m not a fan. Unlike….
Pete: Couldn’t help noticing you’ve given your two examples in a numbered list, a classic Oxford comma avoidance technique! [Busted!]
I believe punctuation should treat all words with equal value – everybody in the list gets a comma. Using a comma for some words in a list and not others invariably skews their meaning. Just like Heisenberg said you can’t observe the experiment without influencing the experiment, you can’t punctuate words unevenly without influencing their meaning.
Margot: Seriously, Pete? Quantum physics?
I can honestly say I haven’t heard the equal-value justification before, Pete. And, in “these times”, it’s a good message. That said, I’ve never attached value to comma placement. For instance, I don’t think Graham Nash is less worthy than David Crosby or Steven Stills because he didn’t get a comma.
What else you got?
Pete: Hmm. Interesting point, but a comma next to an ampersand would just look silly. Just ask Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Better yet, consult any senior partner at Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga & McCormick. (That was Groucho Marx’s law firm in Animal Crackers.)
The group you want is Peter, Paul and Mary, who dispense with both the ampersand and the serial comma. Those three played fast and loose with punctuation, and were drawn to songs like Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (run-on sentence). I think they were smoking too much Puff (The Magic Dragon), but that’s just me.
Getting back to my main point – the meaning of the words. Sure, that last comma might slow you down for a millisecond, but it serves a purpose. Here’s an example of a sentence that requires the Oxford comma to make its point:
With the Oxford comma: “I admire my parents, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.”
Without the Oxford comma: “I admire my parents, Gandhi and Mother Teresa.”
If we leave out the Oxford comma we invalidate the entire sentence. Not only do we rob it of its meaning, we give it a new meaning that’s entirely inaccurate.
As for the time it takes, suppose it takes me one millisecond extra to read an Oxford comma. And suppose I read five of them every day for 90 years. It all adds up to 164 seconds. Now I’m a busy guy, but hey – for my parents, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, I got nothing but time.
Margot: You just proved my point, Pete! In your list of admirable people, the serial comma is necessary to make the meaning clear! Boom. *mic drop* *victory lap* *cue the Rocky soundtrack*
Also, fun fact: My Mom grew up in the same building as Groucho Marx. Saw him in the elevator all the time.
Pete: Margot, I agree with you wholeheartedly: commas disrupt us, confuse us, and slow us down. (See what I did there?) But I would add: only when used improperly. A misplaced comma is like a misplaced traffic signal. The consequences can range from annoying to catastrophic.
So the question is, do we consider the Oxford comma misplaced? Maybe we pro-Oxford people crave structure more than speed. Maybe we feel safer with that extra stop sign, while you non-Oxford folks sense an overall structure inherently and are ready to get to the point. If that’s the case, who am I to slow you down? I say go for it! For my part, if the author is good, they can take their time getting to the point. Throw in that comma – take me on the scenic route. I've got time.
The definitive ruling on using the serial comma
Margot: All this is to say that most of us have strong feelings about commas, and there’s no definitive answer. Or is there? Here’s my steadfast rule: If the person doing your performance review or signing your check has a preference, follow it.
Pete: Oh, how true – follow that preference. Yes, yes, and yes!
One more thing about when you need a comma (or don't)
Margot: Though slightly off-topic, one more thing before we go. Check out this comma abomination -- or commabomination:
Read on for more about the extremes colleges are going to, to persuade students to get vaccinated.
That comma between the tos? What is that?! (I’m seeing this pattern a lot lately, so let’s talk about it.)
Admittedly, two of the same word back-to-back can trip up the reader – and so does that comma. In fact, the comma caused more disruption for me because it not only slowed me way down, it made me think I’d read the sentence wrong. Then I felt frustrated because it just got in my way.
Pro Tip: If you find a construction like this in your sentence, use your revision skills to fix it instead of plopping in a comma. Like this:
- Good: Read on for more about the extremes colleges are going to in persuading students to get vaccinated.
- Better: Read on for more about the extreme measures colleges are taking to persuade students to get vaccinated.
- Best: Read on for more about how colleges are persuading students to get vaccinated.
Pete: HA - "to to” - I love it! That’s just crazy ridiculous, with or without a comma! “To to” makes me think of my seventh grade math teacher Ms. Connor, who once told us that any work we didn’t finish during class we could hand in tomorrow, and then added, “...but hand in what you do do today.” Then she giggled because she’d said “do do.” It makes me giggle remembering it.
(She was a great teacher and made math fun. Not only did she say “do do” in front of a room of seventh graders, she also possessed an old ticket to a Seattle Pilots baseball game, which she agreed to give me if I got a decent grade. I still have the ticket.)