I have a confession to make. I’m not just in love with the Oxford comma, but with commas generally. They make for absolute precision in our writing, and shouldn’t be ignored.
To that end, when editing my own work, I make a habit of reading my articles several times, aloud, to ensure that all are present and correct!
Notice that ‘several times aloud, doesn’t bring the clarity of, ‘several times, AND (also), aloud’.
And just as an example of the need for commas generally, allow me to use a sentence from the profile of a Medium writer whose work I very much admire, Jim McAulay🍁, who states: ‘My favourite things are eating my family and not using commas’. That always makes me smile.
So we deduce three things about him. He’s:
- a cannibal
- maybe an inept writer
- or both
Of course, what he should have written, is this: ‘My favourite things are eating, my family, and not using commas’.
So now we are better informed about him. He loves:
- and his family
- and not using commas.
So, what I am trying to say is, commas are IN, if you want to be a good writer.
But what about the Oxford comma?
So glad you asked! That’s a contentious comma, that people either love, or hate. Yes, the good old Oxford Comma.
Oxford, home to the university that has rated number one two years in a row, is also famous for that aspect of punctuation that seems to elude many.
Some people use it religiously, for clarity, and some dismiss it as totally unnecessary.
An Oxford, or serial, comma, is the last comma in a list, and always precedes the word ‘and’. It’s grammatically optional in American English, but even so, omitting it can lead to confusion at times.
‘This mighty comma is a much-appreciated tool in our never-ending quest to convey meaning as clearly as possible.’
A few days ago I spoke to a very proficient, and prolific writer here on Medium. He grew up on Singapore, so speaks, and writes English quite well. Still, English is his second language.
When editing his work, I rarely have to insert commas. He has a nuanced approach to his work.
Now, because I was discussing the Oxford comma, and its application with him, I’m going to use his name in the following sentence.
‘Aldric Chen is very much into cooking his family and playing chess.’ There’s ambiguity here.
- does he cook?
- or cook his family?
- and play chess?
So the punctuation should have been as follows:
‘Aldric Chen is very much into cooking, his family, and playing chess.’
Another example might look like this:
James holding his son and the King of Spain. That’s no mean feat!
Picture this, if you will…James, holding his son, maybe with the King of Spain on his shoulders.
So we’re looking at a photo caption here.
It should read of course, ‘James, (holding his son), and the King of Spain.
Here’s an interesting one.
We went jogging with our dogs, Grandma and Papa.
In omitting the serial comma, we could be led to believe that the dogs’ names are Grandma and Grandpa (an elaboration on the dogs).
This should read as such: We went jogging with our dogs, Grandma, and Papa.
Oxford commas can be tricky. Still, there’s no need to allow them to trip you up.
Read your work to yourself, then aloud, and ask if there is any ambiguity in what you have written. If so, you may have to fish a few commas out, and insert them appropriately.
The more you read aloud, and use commas appropriately, the clearer your meaning will be.
As for the Oxford comma, it’s staying, old chap!