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 überimportant 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…

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  1. Shari Green’s avatar

    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. ;)

  2. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    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 :)

  3. Bdub’s avatar

    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?

  4. Ruby's Raiser’s avatar

    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!

  5. Megan’s avatar

    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.

  6. Lynne’s avatar

    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.

  7. Gael Lynch’s avatar

    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!)

  8. Wendy Delfosse’s avatar

    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!

  9. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    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

  10. Jim Nicosia’s avatar

    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.

  11. Rachna Chhabria’s avatar

    I have never used the Oxford Comma, except once, and that too by accident. And I changed that immediately to the regular comma.

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