Thursday, December 15, 2011

On pedantry, ambiguity[,] and the Oxford comma.

Hello to all my language hippies out there! I thought I would share an infographic I made earlier today, based upon an image I keep seeing people pass around online (roughly the top left of this version). The original purports to show that the Oxford comma, which is the use of a comma before the word 'and' in a list of three or more items, removes ambiguity from writing. My own version is meant to show that there are other sentences where it is the lack of an Oxford comma which would prevent ambiguity from arising instead.

My opinion is that you should use whichever style you prefer in your own writing, but also that you shouldn't judge other people for using a different one in theirs. But if you're going to get into an argument with someone over the relative merits of the Oxford comma or its absence, make sure you have the facts on your side: neither style is inherently less confusing or more straightforward than the other. It's all just just a matter of personal preference, or what the writer thinks will be most effective in a given sentence.


  1. The bottom example on the left image is incorrect. To comply with the picture example, it should read: "We invited the strippers JFK and Stalin". No comma is required as it implies [someone] invited a [number] of strippers along with JFK and Stalin.

    The same applies to the top right image. No comma is required between stripper and JFK. The inclusion of the comma implies two separate objects i.e. the stripper and JFK. The sentence for the top right image would be: "We invited the stripper JFK and Stalin".

    I have seen a better example showing the inclusion and exclusion of the Oxford Comma.

    "For breakfast I had: eggs, toast and orange juice."

    "For breakfast I had: eggs, toast, and orange juice."

    The former implies that the orange juice and toast were a single item yet, orange juice on toast is some-what an unconventional meal. For this reason, it is generally assumed that the toast and orange juice were separate items.

    The use of an Oxford comma is handy if the context is not assumed to be the same from both parties.

    For example:

    To an alien (ignoring the fact that they can understand English), the Oxford Comma would help explain that the toast and orange juice were in fact separate items on the list.

    I hope this clarifies the use of an Oxford Comma

  2. Thanks for commenting. Using standard English punctuation rules, however, commas can optionally be used to set off an appositive phrase. For example:

    "My sister Alice is visiting this week."
    "My sister, Alice, is visiting this week."

    Both sentences follow standard punctuation, although in the second one the name Alice is interpreted more as a parenthetical comment. This use of commas -- which again, follows the standard rules of punctuation -- can lead to ambiguity when the Oxford comma is not used. That was the point being made by the original image (on the left up above). My contribution (on the right) is meant to show that the same possibility of appositive comma usage can lead to ambiguity without the Oxford comma as well.

    The breakfast example you raise is more problematic. I am not generally a proponent of the standard rules of English punctuation and grammar, as the rest of my blog shows. But using those rules, there is no way to interpret "For breakfast I had eggs, toast and orange juice" with "toast and orange juice" being a single item, because whether someone uses an Oxford comma or not, the standard rules require the word "and" to occur between the penultimate and ultimate items in a list (even a two-item list). So to list the breakfast items "eggs" and "toast and orange juice" in standard written English, one would have to punctuate the sentence thusly:

    "For breakfast I had eggs and toast and orange juice."

    This follows the same structure as "I watch the shows The Office and Parks and Recreation." In both cases, the sentence might be difficult to understand if the reader is not familiar with the second list item (the "x and y" one), but a comma would not be used.

    There is a second interpretation of "For breakfast I had eggs, toast and orange juice," but it is not that "toast and orange juice" was a single item on the breakfast menu. Rather, since the standard rules allow a comma to set off an addressee from the main part of a sentence (as in "Come here, Bob and Tina!"), it could be argued that there is a possible interpretation of this sentence as the speaker telling toast and orange juice that he or she had eggs for breakfast. This interpretation is the one shown at the bottom in the following image:

    I will admit that not using the Oxford comma will sometimes create this ambiguity, whereas using it never could. But it is hard to imagine any sentence in which it is not absolutely clear from the context whether the final words in a sentence are meant as part of a list or a vocative address.

    (Also note that there are plenty of other ambiguities possible with standard English punctuation. "It's my brother, Nathan" could mean that Nathan is the writer's brother or that Nathan is the intended audience of the claim "It's my brother." It seems to me that people who are truly concerned about removing ambiguity from written English should focus their attention on matters like these, rather than the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma allows ambiguity, but so does its alternative, and that's what this blog post and the accompanying image were attempting to show.)

  3. All very wrong; these long rants are important examples showing why the Oxford Comma remains the most logical application of commas for lists. Now, if commas were used in very different ways, then perhaps a case could be made against it, or, as the original image implied, against making a case for one over the other, but, importantly, commas are used as the phonological expression of glottal stops, beginning in the throat, indicating the end of one sentence/utterance, and the beginning of a new utterance or the addition of some related utterance to the last. There are auditorily impossible subtleties present in speech, but they are nonconsciously perceived nonetheless.

  4. In order to support your premise, however, you have subtly changed the original sentence in your example on the right. You made the strippers into a singular stripper in order to make your point. When the sentence is left in its original form, the Ocomma IS needed for complete clarity.

  5. An excellent contribution to the now classic image on the left. It's all about clarity, and avoiding misunderstanding. (Is it Oxford if the list has two? It's not is it. Oh well, I could not restrain myself.)

    I'm glad this post comes up nearly first in a google image search for "oxford comma". Kudos, accolades, and thanks, sir.

  6. Wonderful post, wonderful site. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I have a degree in linguistics, which seems to lead people to assume I'm a pedant about grammar rules when in fact I'm a total grammar hippie, like you. Communication is the goal, after all. Then again, when I read comments that start with something like "All very wrong," it reminds me not to assume we all share that goal.