The Oxford Comma

This is a small bit of punctuation nerdery. Have you heard of the Oxford comma? No? It’s this (bolded and italicized):

I like my scrambled eggs with lox, cheese, and chives.

It’s that last comma before the last “and” (or sometimes “or” or “nor”) in a sentence with a list of three or more items. This is a smartypants comma, as it’s also sometimes called the Harvard comma (or the serial comma). And, of course, it has a Wikipedia entry. The big controversy is: Should we use it or shouldn’t we?

Do you use the Oxford comma? I didn’t used to, but now that I have a Master’s degree and am pretty much a huge smartypants, I’ve started using it. (That’s just my theory for why I’ve added it to my writing…I think I started using it consistently about two years ago after seeing it somewhere and wondering, in my paranoid way, whether I’d actually been doing it wrong all these years. Just like I consciously changed the “a” character of my handwriting in middle school after seeing someone doing it differently because I thought I’d been in the wrong for years. Call it a grammar version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

There’s no consensus for whether or not you should or shouldn’t use it in your manuscript, but isn’t it wonderful to be aware of such civilized things and to make such ΓΌberimportant decisions? Without thinking about commas, we turn into animals. Or cannibals, even! (I’m referring here to a funny comma omission that implicates Rachael Ray on a magazine cover…even though this isn’t an Oxford comma issue.)

Also, Monday was my mom’s birthday. You don’t know the woman (she’s wonderful, trust me), but without her and her art (no, I’m not being big-headed and just talking about me…she’s actually also an artist), your life would be about 75% less awesome and you likely wouldn’t have awoken this fine Wednesday to read about the Oxford/Harvard/smartypants comma. I think a hearty round of applause is in order.

Hmm. It seems I’ve adopted a rather faux-pompous blog personality as of late. Maybe I’m en route to becoming the Stephen Colbert of children’s books. Not bad. Not bad…

61 Replies to “The Oxford Comma”

  1. Happy birthday to your mom!

    I use the Oxford comma thanks to my thesis advisor (he gave a fuck about an Oxford comma…. Vampire Weekend, anyone?)

    Also, in elementary school instead of learning my times tables I practiced writing a “2” the way the teacher’s aide who had copied them down for me did. I still put a loop in my “2”, but I use my fingers for the nines….

  2. Entertaining post! People really do differ on this topic. I used to use the Oxford comma until I recently went back to get my Master’s and had a professor tell me it wasn’t needed any longer (and I think the new Chicago says the same, but don’t quote me on it…I’d have to check.) Now I tend not to, but I have never analyzed why until this morning! Thoroughly entertaining in a nerdy grammarian kind of way. πŸ™‚

  3. Ha Ha, you should definitely rename it the “smartypants comma.” I started using it in grad school, too. Perhaps there is a secret society of graduate professors who aspire to share fancy punctuation with their students?

    I’m sending applause your way, Mary. And happy birthday to your mum!

  4. You mean I can’t just drag a bag of random punctuation marks with me to my writing room (As if I really have one of THOSE-I wish!) and sprinkle them liberally throughout a manuscript? Dang.

    Happy, Happy, and Happiest of days to the “commatron” of your family!

  5. I didn’t realize there was a debate about commas in a series. I teach 2nd grade in CA, and this is a one of the punctuation lessons we teach. When I taught upper grades, the comma lesson was basically this: if you take a breath, use a comma. Most of the time it works. Thanks for the lesson!

  6. The Oxford comma helped my husband get his job. He was working freelance when he griped to his boss about people who do not use the Oxford comma. His boss, normally a mild-mannered man, went banana pants. He agreed that people who do not use the Oxford comma are heathen cannibals that deserve to die.

    And a beautiful friendship was born.

  7. I use the Oxford comma, though before this post I never knew it had a name (Thanks Mary!).

    The reason I use it is because it seems to weight all items in a list evenly. Like, for example:

    Jennifer’s father divided his estate between Robert, Alex, and James.

    If I leave out the Oxford comma:

    Jennifer’s father divided his estate between Robert, Alex and James.

    It feel like half of the estate went to Robert and the other half was split by Alex and James. At least that’s the way it feels to me. Also, looking at my example sentence, it seems that Jennifer’s father is a HUGE chauvinist!

    Happy birthday to your awesome Mom, Mary!

  8. Alex, I’m sure you mean that Jennifer’s father divided his estate *among* Robert, Alex, and James, while we’re on the topic of being grammatically correct. Don’t worry. I’m smiling as I type this.

  9. There’s currently a very good racehorse out there named Comma to the Top. Maybe one day one of his foals will be named Smartypants Comma. (Comma to the Top, btw, is Southern slang for an apostrophe.)

  10. I was taught to use that comma in school, whatever grade it was they teach you that sort of thing. I actually never knew some people didn’t use it until a woman at work mentioned it!

  11. I feel ten pounds lighter, Mary. I used to use it, was shamed into dropping it, then started back up again.

    Thank you!

    Now I’m wondering… “I began to use”, or “I began using”. Hmm… Oh great deceased Harvard alumni spirits in the sky! Why is it so confusing? WHY!?!

  12. Oh, dear Mary. You have such a way of making me smile. πŸ˜€

    I have always used the smartypants comma, even as a kid (because yes, I’ve been writing stories since forever ago). I never knew there was any other way to do it until adulthood, when I began studying writing as a career. Whether it is truly wrong or not, it looks wrong to me without it.

  13. I LOVE the Oxford comma and have always and will always use it forever and ever amen I don’t care what you tell me. (Aside, I’ve always used it because it was taught to me in grammar school – oh, I mean, elementary school where I was indeed taught grammar. Yes, by little Catholic nuns. And this was only in the 90s, so…)

    Because otherwise you end up with, “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Madonna.”

  14. We were taught the Oxford comma in high school by our gramma nazi-esqe AP English teacher. Whenever someone asks me to proof their paper, they invariably get comments to use the Oxford comma. I recently converted my boyfriend to the Oxford comma collective.

  15. Awesome. This was always my main reason for preferring the CMS over AP. I’d always called it the serial comma, but smartypants comma does seem to serve it better, so I may be calling it that now too! πŸ™‚

  16. Funny on the smartypants thing. I always thought the serial comma was used (except in AP style) to avoid tripping up a reader with sentences like:

    My favorite foods are pizza, Cheerios, ham and eggs and Funions.

  17. This is very strange. I was educated in the UK, and was taught that it was WRONG to have a comma and an ‘and’ next to each other because they were both links or conjunctions. OK my memory might be a little age impaired on that last bit. It wasn’t until I was here, that I was ‘told’ that I was wrong and I should use a comma with ‘ands’ at the end of a list, or before and after ‘as well as’ and neither of those things make sense to me at all. But I comply. Because I try not to make ‘English’ waves πŸ™‚

  18. I art direct a magazine and we use serial commas as per Chicago style. But I’ve always felt that “serial” sounded a bit sinister, as in “Detective Kole knew a serial comma lurked in the dark paragraph.” “Smarty pants comma” is so much more fun, yet elite. Thanks.

  19. I use the smartypants comma in my work (the style guide for the magazine I write for and edit requires it), and because it’s so ingrained in me at work, I end up using it in my creative writing, too. It’s a hard habit to break.

  20. A round of applause for your mom. *clap clap clap*

    I found out about the Oxford comma when I decided I wanted to be a word nerd and was not doing very well at it. I’m still not. I’m a complete failure. My nerdiness comes out in whole other ways. The truth is, I’m completely rusty on where to put any comma except for the wonderful Oxford comma. It is officially the only one I do understand.

    Why can’t all grammar be so easy? If it was, I would have some shot at being a word nerd instead of a complete line editing nightmare.

  21. Heh, I love your faux-pompous blog!

    Also, perhaps your heart will be warmed to know that second graders in our local school, right now, are being taught to use the Oxford comma all over their little recycled paper worksheets. And tonight, during homework, I will refer to the mark as the “smartypants comma” instead of the Oxford comma, and my 8-year old will finally realize I AM a rock star. Thanks!

  22. I’m a firm believer in the smartypants (my new favorite word, thanks to you!) comma. In this crazy world, don’t you just love it that we can befriend our readers simply by hanging a second curly mark in a series, possibly making their days better, easier to understand, and maybe even worth living again? I kinda like that. πŸ™‚

  23. I use it when I need it for clarification. I prefer to err on the side of using it.

    And yes, “smartypants comma” should become part of the modern lexicon. πŸ™‚

  24. I’ve worked in children’s publishing for more than 20 years, and the “serial comma” is simply the standard not only at all the companies where I’ve worked, but across the industry, to the best of my knowledge. You can’t open a children’s book and not find it.

    And I’ve never heard it called the “smartypants comma” before. I don’t see any reason to change the name…

  25. Enlightening post! Nice to know that all of the grammar/punctuation trauma my middle school English teacher put me through has pushed me into the nerdy grammar elite! I feel smarter already–if I don’t count the hours I’ve spent this morning watching Highschool Musical 3 with my sickly little people. Here’s hoping that between the two I break even:)

  26. I’ve been seeing so much about the Oxford comma on tumblr’s fyeahenglishmajor blog and didn’t even know what it was. Now I knew what it was, I just didn’t know the name! Thanks so much for this post that makes me feel more English major-y. My first grade teacher taught me to use it, she must have been a smartypants. And now because of her I am, too.

  27. I’ve always used the Oxford comma. I majored in Journalism, and they tried to beat it out of me, but I held on to it for dear life. My coworker, who also majored in Journalism, hardly uses any commas at all. I have some bottled up resentment towards her about it. Of course, I’ve always been somewhat of a smartypants.

  28. I went the other way. I was taught to always use the smartypants comma by the nuns back in the day. I have always felt rather self-conscious about it and usually edit to remove it in my writing, although deep down I know it is the proper thing to include. *sigh* The things we muddle our minds with!

  29. Wow. I grew up using that comma and then dropped it because it wasn’t part of our house style at the last two publishers I worked for (ahem for whom I worked). Does this mean my smartypants status is revoked?

  30. Okay, so maybe I will use it. I decided not to in high school when my English teacher gave me the choice of using it or not. But, hey, everyone likes to be a smarty pants.

  31. Like Corinne, I’ve been trying to learn to edit out the serial (smartypants, LOL) comma from my work since I started writing fiction. I’m 99.9% sure I was taught to use it in school. But I grew up in Canada, not the US.

  32. Someone on another forum came up with some perfect memory-jogger grammar reminders for why to always use the Oxie, even if you think you “shouldn’t”.
    Eg.:
    – “He dedicated the book to his two brothers, Willie Nelson and God.”
    – “The book contains interviews with Walt Disney’s two daughters, Britney Spears and Captain Kangaroo.”
    (LOL – There’s nothing that dangles so humorously or embarrassingly as a participle.)

  33. Aha so that’s what an Oxford comma is! Thanks for sharing. And how cool your mom is an artist. Hope she had a fabulous bday.
    So lucky to have someone to learn from. Drawing is another passion of mine:)

  34. Though educated in the US, I was taught, like SuzeW, that it was WRONG to use a comma before the conjunction, as in “My pocket was full of nickles, dimes and quarters.” But I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the powers-that-be in American education now REQUIRE students to use this previously (I thought) superfluous punctuation mark. I just hope and pray that they don’t reverse policy on “i before e, except after c…” as it is so ingrained in my very soul.

  35. Wow! I had no idea that “smartypants” status is so important to writers! I should figure out a way to bottle it and sell it… MUAH HAHAHAHAHA!

  36. I never used to use serial commas until I had a lawyer explain its importance to me this way:

    * If a will is written: “I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones and Robert White,” then the single comma means that John will get half the property. The other half will be divided equally between Sue and Robert, meaning each will receive 1/4. The absence of the comma after Sue’s name lumps her with Robert as a single entity.

    * If, however, the will is written: “I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones, and Robert White,” then all three people are equally important. Each stand on his or her own. So each would receive 1/3 of the property.

    I don’t have a law degree, so I don’t know how true that is, but it made perfect sense to me, and I’ve been using the serial comma ever since.

  37. Oh yes, absolutely a huge fan of the Oxford comma (although I had no idea it was called that). I think it’s crazy that English teachers give students the choice to use it or not. It’s funny that your post is about this very thing because I’ve always wondered why anyone would not want to use it. To save space? Laziness? The more commas the merrier, I say!

  38. “Well, I hope it keeps up. We DO need a Stephen Colbert of children’s books.”

    I’d rather have a Jon Stewart of children’s books….(shakes fist) Darn youuu, Stephanie Meyers! πŸ˜‰
    In fact, if there’re no applicants to the opening, I might apply.

  39. First off Mary, a very happy birthday to your mom! I hope it was a wonderful day for her!
    I began using the Oxford Comma in grad school and continue to us it when writing any scholarly articles. However, I don’t use it in my creative writing stories or queries (my local critique group beat it out of me). It’s been hard to make the adjustment back and forth, and I often have to double and triple check to make sure that I’m staying consistent in my work.
    It’s good to know that it’s creeping in to creative writing world. Now I can relax and enjoy the comma!

  40. I’ve always used the “Oxford comma” but never knew it had a name, lol. I just thought it was the way commas were supposed to be used! However, I think from now on I’ll always think of it as the smartypants comma. πŸ˜‰

  41. Happy Birthday to your mom!

    I read about the Oxford comma in Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss but you soon forget these things. I couldn’t tell you if I use it or not, but I’m guessing I don’t πŸ™‚

  42. I do use the Oxford comma. I was taught to use it in school and later have been told it was old-fashioned and not necessary but continue to use it.

    I don’t know if this comma also has a name, but I was also taught to use a comma before “too.” As in “I miss you, too!” I have been told this is old-fashioned and not necessary, but continue to use it, too. See?

  43. Hilarious, I was just pondering whether to continue using the Oxford comma (yep, it’s a slow day). Same as you – never used to use it, saw it, felt like I was hung up on some grammar rule from the 70s by not using it, so started using it. As if I need even more commas in my writing!

  44. I’ve always used the Oxford comma, but then, I learned grammar from a very proper British man. I’ve always just assumed if a proper British english teacher said to do it, then I should do it.

  45. Just finishing the revisions to my WIP, and the last thing to tackle was–yup, the Oxford comma. To use or not to use? I remembered your post, Googled “Oxford comma,” and to my delight, discovered that Vampire Weekend even has a song titled “Oxford Comma.” Who knew?

    Helpful post, as always. Thanks.

  46. I love this, Mary! I call it the ‘grown-up’ comma in my classroom. My sweet (but sometimes a little nerdy) sixth graders had tremendous doubt when I showed them this one. They believed that I was, once again, pushing it too far. Wasn’t the ‘and’ in the series enough? Now I can show them your blog entry and they’ll see what a ‘smarypants’ I am! (Happy B-day to your mama!)

  47. Did I never comment on this entry? It’s kind of funny you call it the smartypants comma cause I think I USED to use it and at some point, maybe in college, stopped cause I thought that was the “better” way. Since your blog I think I’m using it more again!

  48. I used to use the Oxford comma. I taught its use to my fourth graders for many years. Recently, I heard that publishers don’t like it because it eats up manuscript space which translates into dollars.
    Mary Ann Duke
    Sarasota, FL

  49. One of those crazy and ever-evolving rules of grammar. I teach Grammars of English at the university level, and this is one of those areas where we learn just how completely arbitrary grammar is (yes, completely!). I was taught it was proper to use it, then went to college when its use was universally pooh-poohed, and now it seems to be coming in vogue again. I still love commas, and think they do wonders for guiding a reader’s rhythm of reading, but the serial comma is a baffling concept.

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