Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Defending the Oxford Comma

I just got involved in an internet freeforall on this issue, which I've wondered about over the years. Do you say "eggs, toast, and orange juice" or "eggs, toast and orange juice"? I have always put in the "extra" comma, as did Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State, [sic] and Utopia.

One commenter spoke of being surprised when the last comma "came into use." Actually, I'm pretty sure The Oxford comma was the original system, gradually it has been disappearing. Take a look at any eighteenth century author, such as David Hume or Dr. Johnson. It's commas all the way down! Over the years, language tends to become simpler. People are "economical." When the process goes too far, we say "lazy. In this case, I think its laziness.

I see two reasons for the Oxford comma: 1) consistency - why should the last two elements of a series be different from the others? 2) the breath rule - commas represent pauses.

Some see the comma itself as inconsistent. Why is there no comma after "eggs" in "I had eggs and toast." The second comment above explains why. Just say "I had eggs and toast" aloud. See? No pause after "eggs."

Some say that the "and" at the end of the series does exactly what the comma does, making the comma redundant. Not so, if only because "and" is sometimes part of the name of one thing, and not part of a series at all. Like every other word, it is ambiguous. Consider how a "no extra comma" person will have to write this sentence: ""His eclectic CD collection included pop, heavy metal, and rhythm and blues." To my eye, the two "ands" become somewhat confusing.

On the other side, the only real argument is economy. That final comma is "extra." But it is a very weak sort of economy -- how much ink is spilled for that little curly mark? It is an argument that vanishes if there are any considerations on the other side. And there are.

(HT to Bella Shortt for picture.)


Aeon Skoble said...

You're exactly right. Otherwise, you get weird double meanings, my favorite example of which is: "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus."

Lester Hunt said...

Perfect example!

pmoran said...

very logical I agree but we aren't taking into account the pause associated with the word and. Therefore, if you use a comma with and, you are getting two pauses which isn't logical.

Lester Hunt said...

I don't quite get that. There pause before the and is indicated by the Oxford comma, and there is no pause after the and. So just one comma for that. Unless I am missing your point, which is quite possible.