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Karl the Curmudgeon Hates the Oxford Comma

"So, Kid, what do you think about this whole serial comma business?" asked Karl, my friend and part-time curmudgeon. He was referring to the second comma that appears in a list, like "red, white, and blue."

What serial comma business? I asked. Has something happened to it?

"No," said Karl. "I was just wondering what you thought of it." We were sitting in The Maudlin Moose, a Nova Scotian bar and grill. We were watching the Nova Scotia provincial curling quarterfinals on satellite TV, and hoisting a couple of Canadian beers to celebrate. The Chedabucto Curling Club was locked in icy battle against the 14 Wing Greenwood Curling Club. Chedabucto was leading 7 - 3.

Well, first of all, it's called the Oxford comma, I said. Second, I'm a big fan. I'm thinking about getting one tattooed on my shoulder.

"Seriously, Kid?" Karl plonked his beer on the bar, like he usually did when he was annoyed or surprised. I ignored it. "You like the serial comma—?"

Oxford comma.

"Whatever. Isn't it also called the Harvard comma?"

Yes, but "Oxford comma" sounds smarter, more refined, and just plain spiffy, I said, employing my beloved comma.

"And Harvard's not 'spiffy?'"

Not like Oxford.

"I figured that as a newspaper columnist, you would be dead against it. The Associated Press Style Guide says not to use it."

Yes, but it's widely used in the American Psychological Association's style guide, and I used the APA style guide all through college.

"Well, I've been writing a whole lot longer than you, and I refuse to use it."

Never? Not even once?

"Not in my columns, my articles, or my books."

You just used it right there.

"No, I didn't. You put it there."

Why would I do that?

"Because you're sneaky, underhanded, and would do it for a cheap laugh."

See, you did it again.

"Now cut that out!"

I ordered a couple more beers. This was turning out to be a fun evening. I think it's important for writers to use the serial comma for clarity, I said.

"Bull. A good writer can be clear without it."

Oh yeah? What about the guy who dedicated his book to "my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa?" If he had used the Oxford comma, it wouldn't have looked like his parents were the two holiest people in the world.

"That story's apocryphal anyway."


"Apocryphal. It means dubious, untrue, or inaccurate."

Gotcha. You did it again.

"Kid, now you're just putting commas in my mouth!" Karl plonked his beer so hard, some of it sloshed over the side.

What about this? There was a story in Time magazine about a Dallas church that had "3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stem roses in the bathroom." And since the journalist didn't use the Oxford comma, we're led to believe the church has a violinist in the bathroom.

Karl folded his arms. "Well, maybe it does."

Don't be that way, you big baby. There is no reason whatsoever to leave out a comma. It doesn't change anything, and it doesn't use up a lot of extra ink.

"I've got one for you. 'Ken, a writer, and a horse went to the baseball game.' Does that sentence mean that Ken is a writer and he took a horse to the game, or did Ken and a writer take a horse to the game? That right there shows me why Oxford commas are bad news."

No, that right there shows why you need to be a better writer. You could say "Ken, a writer, took a horse to the game," or you could say "Ken and a writer took a horse to the game." If you think the sentence is unclear, then it needs to be rewritten.

"That's easy for you to say," said Karl. "Anything to save your precious comma."

Well, I don't see why people are so dead set against it. It helps with reader clarity, and it lends a touch of class and tradition to writing. I think too many people like to dismiss it because they think they're supposed to.

"What about journalists? Don't you think they know what they're doing?"

Yes, but a lot of them have a knee-jerk reaction against it. But when they eliminate it, they end up with violinists in church bathrooms.

"I think I'm going home now."

Oh come on, I said. Don't be a big baby.

"I'm not being a baby," Karl said. "I'm tired, I'm hungry, and I've got a headache."

You also keep using those pesky commas.

"That's it, I'm tired of this, you're bugging me, and—."

And what?

"Never mind."

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  1. I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma. :-D

  2. Hilarious.

    I'm also a fan of the Oxford comma. I don't know why AP has to contradict every other writing style. APA uses it, Chicago (my humanities love!) uses it, and MLA uses it. Does AP need to feel special? Is it a hidden guideline to prove that you can write for press? Sounds awfully sinister to me...

  3. Thanks Josh and Dave,

    I personally LOVE the AP style (I'm a geek that way). But this is the one area where I depart from them. I remember when I was in college getting into a towering argument with the editor of my school paper over the comma. He kept saying it was AP style, and I kept saying it was stupid. I think he won that one, since "the AP is stupid" somehow lacked the logical legs I needed.

  4. AP Style is laden with shortcuts based on ancient typesetting procedures (hand set).

    The Oxford (or Harvard) Comma is necessary for clarity. I heard a story about a rich gentlemen's will was dividing up assets among three offspring. The line was something to the effect of dividing the assets between Jacob, Joseph and Jeremiah. Jacob took the other brothers to court claiming that Dad had intended to give half to him and divide the other half between the other two because of the lack of a clarifying comma.

    It may be untrue, but it points up the need for the serial comma.

    I have many other issues with AP Style.

    Fun article!


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