If you know me at all, you know that I'm a stickler for the Oxford comma. Why be a stickler for a punctuation method? Why does it matter? And what is the Oxford comma, you may be Googling right now? Let me explain.

In elementary school, I was taught to write using the Oxford comma1. If you're wondering what this esoteric grammatical rule is all about, you may find self-referential treatment by its other name: the serial comma. This particular comma is used to identify and separate three or more items listed in a sentence, and is placed before the coordinating conjunction (such as "and", "or"). Depending on how much of a dick you want to be, you can throw around its credentials, which include usage support by prestigious style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Oxford University Press, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. So far, it seems like my poor, struggling elementary school was correct. But of course, other grammatical miscreants will disagree.

There are innumerable examples of how the Oxford comma is the most effective and clearest way to communicate a sequence of things, but up until reading this Oxford Comma article by Angus Croll, I hadn't thought about how it could be used to confound the very thing it was attempting to clarify.

Here's his example:

...it turns out that for every phrase that the Oxford comma clarifies, there's another for which it obfuscates. “Through the window she saw George, a policeman and several onlookers” clearly refers to two people and some onlookers. Throw in the Oxford comma and George has become a policeman: “Through the window she saw George, a policeman, and several onlookers”.

Okay, point taken, even if this sentence was rigged to surface the very problem (hello all textbook examples2). Croll uses the Oxford comma as an example to contextualize the ease of writing casually on the Internet, whether it be blog posts, articles, tweets -- whatever. His essay trails off at the end, but there are some good ideas to point out:

  • Is language and writing becoming less structured because of new mediums through which they are used?
  • If so, do grammatical rules matter as much in 2013 as they did in the 1913?
  • Do grammatical rules apply as specifically in one medium versus another, or because of technological progress (as stated above)?

While I'm not in an academic enough position to answer these questions outright, it can at least be posited before an astute readership and a changing world that continues to use different technologies to write and communicate. Regardless of which side of the line you stand on, it is reasonable enough to assume that because of the changes in technology (of which electronic technology is now our primary method for communicating and writing), brevity is ever more important. Status updates aren't getting any longer, news articles are getting shorter, and emails are increasingly tapped on mobile devices. But there still remains a distinction between brevity and clarity, and if the Oxford comma prevents confusion in a succinct message, then by all means, we should continue to endorse it.

Clarity, Brevity, and Aesthetics

So how do we address Croll's example, which does provide an instance where the Oxford comma prevents clarity? Well, the example sentence itself is written unclearly. If I were an editor-type, I'd suggest a revision as such:

Through the window she saw a policeman, several onlookers, and George.

Or, I suppose:

Through the window she saw George, several onlookers, and a policeman.

Clarity. Brevity. The Oxford comma.

But any bit of nitpicking in sentence structure will yield arguments around the use of something like the Oxford comma. It is the responsibility of the author to write a sentence with clarity in mind. Ridiculous lists like the ones I mention are structurally unclear by nature. If we are defending the Oxford comma's use in serial lists, we need to make sure that those lists can be clearly written. If there is confusion around identifiying a policeman with commas, and listing another person (or persons) thereafter, there should be a better way to write the sentence and forego the use of a serial list altogether.

Perhaps in defending the Oxford comma I've merely reinforced the notion that it is actually an aesthetic punctuation choice, and not one that operates exclusively for clarity. You can use it or disregard it. If used properly in the right sentence, it can assist with clarity, but is not by its high and mighty self the reason for the sentence being any clearer. In the business of online copy and PowerPoint presentations, I'll remove the Oxford comma for aesthetic reasons:

  • The title or header will be shorter without it (brevity)
  • The title or header is more punctual without it (aesthetic)
  • The title or sentence is reduced by one character (when those characters really count, such as in paid search ads or META description tags)

Depending on the context of the serial list, sometimes breaking up the paragraph and using a bulleted list is a welcome choice. But while this is a recommended direction for business emails, presentations, and -- if appropriate -- articles, it doesn't work so well in long-form writing and prose.

How you decide, if at all, to use the Oxford comma should be more about sentence aesthetics and supporting clarity rather than pretentiousness. In a communication world increasingly focused on writing (the Internet is, after all, still about words), brevity becomes more and more important. If the Oxford comma ends up adding complexion to a succinct sentence, then avoid it. I happen to think it's a nice little bit of punctuation that helps more than harms. As long as sentence brevity and slang don't override contraction apostrophes, we should be good.

  1. And using two spaces after periods, I may add -- but due to aesthetic reasons, I couldn't comply.
  2. Yeah, about those written textbook examples: I want that job.