The Oxford Comma is Bullshit

There are exactly four things a “correctly” placed comma can do to a sentence:

  1. Improve clarity
  2. Increase ambiguity
  3. Have no effect on clarity; and
  4. Have no effect on ambiguity

I’ve put quotation marks around “correctly” because I would argue that using a comma in any way except #1 is technically incorrect, but I wanted to distinguish these placements from out-and-out incorrect placement arbitrarily in a sentence.

I’ll start at the end of the list and work backwards.

No Effect on Ambiguity

Consider this sentence: “I went to the shop with Jim, a chef and a metalsmith.”

Jim appears to have two professions. But I may have gone to the shop with three people: Jim, another person who’s a chef, and someone else that’s a metalsmith.

With the help of the Oxford comma: “I went to the shop with Jim, a chef, and a metalsmith.”

Now Jim is a chef, and the metalsmith appears to be someone else, but it’s still possible that I intended to say that I went to the shop with three different people.

So the Oxford comma is useless here.

No Effect on Clarity

Here’s a picture that I saw the other day, trying to defend the serial comma.


Fig 1. The stupidest fucking defence I’ve ever seen.

This is without a doubt the most moronic defence of this punctuation mark I’ve ever seen. Here’s how you can tell it’s stupid: go up to a friend today and tell them that you had eggs, toast and orange juice today for breakfast. They will not grab you by the shoulders and shake you, screaming, “HOW DID YOU CREATE THE UNHOLY CHIMERA OF TOAST AND ORANGE JUICE COMBINED,” I promise you.

It’s far more likely that they’ll call you a lucky bastard and say they only had time for a cup of coffee, what with traffic on the way to work being so bad these days and anyways eggs give them gas.

This use of the comma has precisely zero effect on the clarity of the sentence. If you wanted to indicate that you had some sort of juice-toast hybrid, you’d use a hyphen.

“This morning for breakfast, I had eggs and toast-juice. Or juice-toast. I dunno, I was pretty drunk.”

Here’s another image, which I’m including so people stop trying to use it to justify anything.

This is definitely an image upgrade for Stalin

Fig 2. Only marginally less stupid than the first example, but more annoying

This image correctly indicates that placing a comma changes the meaning of the sentence, so it is slightly less asinine. But both sentences are correct; the second one is not any less grammatically valid than the first.

The problem is that, absent of context, NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY FUCKING SENSE. Since the creator is obviously trying to defend the Oxford comma, the implication is that inviting two strippers, an assassinated President and a dead fucking mass murderer to your party is LESS OUTRAGEOUS than inviting two strippers who have stage names of a famous playboy and a guy whose name translates to “Man of Steel”. Are you fucking kidding me?

In the absence of clarifying context—say, whether this is a line from a zombie novel or something—the only reasonable interpretation that I can make is that the strippers ARE named JFK and Stalin. Either that, or I’m going to the wrong fucking parties.

Either way, stop promulgating this bullshit.

Introducing Ambiguity

The Oxford comma, like any other comma, can introduce ambiguity into a situation. To wit:

“I went to the party with Irene, my best friend, and a six pack of beer.”


“I went to the party with Irene, my best friend and a six pack of beer.”

The first sentence is unclear because we don’t know if Irene and my best friend are the same person or different people. The Oxford comma has put “my best friend” into apposition with “Irene”.


Fig 3. This schlock as my best friend? I think not.

The second sentence is more clear, because you’d have to believe that Irene was both my best friend AND a six pack of beer, which is hugely unlikely. If I made friends with inanimate containers of alcohol, obviously my best friend would be a bottle of vodka.

Adding Clarity

Okay, this is the last case, and after I’ve spent the rest of the time beating up on the Oxford comma, we come to the point where I admit that it can make a sentence clearer. In fact, since we all agree that this is possible, I’m not even going to come up with an example.

But now we’re left with the situation where out of four possible use cases, the Oxford comma either does nothing at all or makes things worse in three of them. You could, conversely, argue that the Oxford comma does nothing or makes things BETTER in three cases, except that that runs counter to the notion that one should use as little punctuation as needed in a sentence to make things clear, but no more than that. This is why, in literature, you never see four question marks to indicate incredulity, or six exclamation marks to really, REALLY show that someone is excited. (No, furry slash fiction doesn’t count as “literature”.)

Using the Oxford comma as a matter of style is as pointless as using two spaces after a period. It brings no grammatical utility, but a bunch of us were taught to do it by rote by teachers who only had the vaguest understanding of why they were teaching us these things.

If you use the so-called Oxford comma, use it because that’s where a comma goes to make things clear, the same as ANY OTHER COMMA. It really doesn’t deserve its own term or notation, because it’s not doing anything different.

And if your sentences are delivered without context and they suffer from some sort of problem where people can’t tell what the fuck you’re talking about, re-write the fucking sentence or give some edifying information before or after. Shoehorning in a bunch of commas isn’t the way to solve problems with your grammar and diction. Just how lazy are you?


~ by VJGoh on September 22, 2011.

19 Responses to “The Oxford Comma is Bullshit”

  1. Ahem.

    “It brings no grammatical utility, but a bunch of us were taught to do it by rote by teachers that only had the vaguest understanding of why they were teaching us these things.” Teachers are people, I _think_ you should have used “who” instead of “that”.

    “It really doesn’t deserve it’s own term or notation, because it’s not doing anything different.” You misused the apostrophe in the fifth word.

    I am sure there is a law that states I have made a grammatical mistake in this comment.

  2. You are certainly correct when you state that the Oxford comma can add ambiguity. In those cases, it should not be used. In my experience, these cases are rare. Far more often, I find the lack of an Oxford comma adds to ambiguity.

    I love the Oxford comma. I love the comma, generally. I think we should use commas more frequently in writing. I think of them like I think of whitespace; they are a key to aesthetic design of the written word. They help break up a sentence, making the sentence easier to parse.

    You are obviously a communist who prefers orange juice on toast.

  3. Fixed those two errors. Thanks. 🙂
    I always miss the “who/that” issue.

    As for the comma, it’s (now) a specific grammatical construct with a distinct purpose. Commas separate clauses and list items. The notion that we should use it to break up a sentence for aesthetic reasons is very old, but at this point, very outdated. The ellipsis is more appropriate if you want to insert pauses into your sentence to reflect some sort of change in cadence or whatnot, I believe.

    Moreover, my real point is that a comma should be used to clarify a situation, but it shouldn’t be used by rote. If it adds clarity, use it. If not, leave it out. You should be reading your sentences as you write them, which sounds asinine, but I get the impression that a lot of people don’t, and that’s why we end up with commas randomly strewn about, or not used when they should be. As such, the ‘Oxford’ comma doesn’t deserve a name. It’s just a comma.

  4. Fucking Pinko Commanists.

  5. I actually agree with much of your commentary; however, I think that the underlying assumption that you make is wrongheaded. This is the assumption that leads to the sweeping statement and title of your blog: the Oxford comma is bullshit. The Oxford comma, just like any other mark of punctuation, is only useful or helpful in so far as it is a tool so it really depends on the writer’s ability to deploy it appropriately.
    I also take issue with your examples: your example of an offensive ambiguity-inducing Oxford comma is not really a fair example. If “my best friend” is intended to be a modifying phrase or a non-restrictive clause then the second comma is not an Oxford comma at all. If Irene is not in fact the best friend and you did intend to list a series of items that accompanied you to the party, then I would suggest that the problem is not the addition of the Oxford comma but the lack of context or the choice of wording. You could have simply listed two names—i.e. I went to the party with Irene, Bob, and beer. A difference in word choice would mean that the addition or omission of the Oxford comma would have been inconsequential.
    I also really like the two funny illustrations (at least I find them funny). I like them because they make a point: they demonstrate that punctuation matters, that it has the ability to alter the meaning of words. Perhaps my feelings here can be attributed to teaching grammar and writing to students who had zero interest in grammar and writing. I don’t think that either of the sentences in the illustrations would ever be misunderstood sans Oxford comma but that’s the point. The silly illustrations demonstrate the potential for ambiguity. Grammatically perfect prose can be unclear, but if people understand how to use the grammatical resources that are part of our language they stand a better chance of being understood. For my part, I’ll keep the Oxford comma and hopefuly use it well 🙂

  6. Okay, fair enough. I’ll admit that my ambiguity-inducing comma example was selected as much for its chance to be funny as anything. But we can still come up with an example where it creates ambiguity merely by listing three people and forcing apposition there.

    “I went to the party with my Mother, Irene, and Jim.”

    Now my mother is Irene, and we went with Jim.

    “I went to the party with my Mother, Irene and Jim.”

    Now my mother would have to be both Irene and Jim. Any list of the form,

    “X, Y, and Z” is ambiguous if Y can be considered appositive to X, allowing for cases where Z is completely unrelated to both X and Y. But in that case, the Oxford comma again has no impact.

    I still think the first illustration is actually just completely wrong–it literally makes no sense at all. The second illustration could make its point better if it used characters that weren’t dead. I know it’s trying to be funny, but I still think it should hold up under scrutiny, which it doesn’t. If the Oxford comma is meant to reduce ambiguity, the situation itself should be relatively unambiguous. (Actually, the situation IS unambiguous; it is impossible to invite JFK and Stalin to parties.)

    Like I said to Chris, the Oxford comma doesn’t deserve a name, and it doesn’t deserve to be used by rote, since it’s not a SPECIAL comma, it’s just a comma.

    Effectively, we disagree on the point that the least amount of punctuation used in the pursuit of clarity is the correct amount. 🙂

  7. Oh dear, here we go again. I think we are agreed that the Oxford comma has a limited use, but surely you would not begrudge giving this mark its fair due and deprive it of a name. Look at the exclamation point—now, there’s a one-trick pony but it still has a name. Ditto for the question mark. Would you rather we refer to the Oxford comma as the “mark of punctuation formerly known as the Oxford comma”? That seems a bit churlish to me. After all, the Oxford comma has inspired a cool song and many wonderfully, albeit nerdy, debates among writers, academics, and bloggers. See what I did there? If I did not use the Oxford comma in my previous sentence, you may believe that I meant “academics who are bloggers” rather than “academics and bloggers.” Someone once said that it is best to end with laughter rather than tears so I’ll end with a little joke: Exclamation mark asked the Oxford comma how his date with apostrophe went. Oxford comma sighed and said “I don’t think it will work.” Exclamation mark asked “why not.” Oxford comma replied: “I fear Apostrophe is just too possessive.” Okay, that was terrible. Hopefully, you can forgive me in time.

  8. We’re agreed to use the comma when it removes ambiguity. I just don’t agree we should use it when there’s no impact on clarity whatsoever.

    Grammar jokes, like math jokes, are always forgiven. 🙂

  9. I believe we have found common ground. Thanks for the provocative blog post and lively discussion.

  10. “Anyways” is not a correct word. The first part, any, covers all ways. Therefore no pluralization of the second part, way, is necessary. You’re welcome.

  11. The complaint is both irrelevant and of dubious correctness. While it’s not the preferred version of the word, apparently it’s been in use nearly as long as ‘anyway’.

    Both words are entirely colloquial, so I wouldn’t use either if this were a piece of formal writing, which this isn’t.

    Lastly, despite the fact that it’s not quoted text, it’s strongly implied that the word is being used conversationally, and in that context, I hear the formation ‘anyways’ more often than ‘anyway’. It may be a local variation.

    But, y’know, thanks anyways.

  12. With yesterday’s release of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes”, the mulling of the matter of the Oxford comma prompted a Google Search which lead me here. Since the comments section’s been stirred since the years past, might it be less minded for me to make an amateur case in favor?

    To start, I’ll be calling this use a “terminal comma”, since it’s much more clear of its function (and a bit less pompous of its, I presume, origin).

    I view punctuation sort’f like mathematical sentences: If there’s missing text, you put that apostroph[i]e; ending punctuation’s within quotes only if the quotes are quoting the punctuation (which even in your posts holds versus the “quotes always include the last period or comma” “rule” I and mine were taught); and if there’s a list, you put that last comma –like a set of parentheses– because “and” is not a comma, dagnabbit! [insert grumpy old man on a weathered porch visual here]

    I’d like to suggest here my own example, which I feel is less silly, but may be less frequent, using a term where “X and Y” is a singular item. Let’s say you’re listing off the sandwiches you have, and the list ends as, “…, tuna and peanut butter and jelly.” Right off, orating that is silly enough; if it’s not audible and the reader hasn’t hit these words yet, the lack of comma may, to a mind used to terminal commas’ omission, prepare for “peanut butter [sandwiches]” to be the final item, but then “and jelly” immediately runs on and then leads to double-taking the list to set it sensible in-mind. Now, obviously the maximum comma use won’t be, “…, tuna, and peanut butter, and jelly,” unless that’s been the style of the preceding list or if “jelly [sandwiches]” was tacked on as an afterthought or abrupt addition (to which I’d say enter ellipses or a dash, respectively). So, we’re left with either, “…, tuna and peanut butter, and jelly,” or, “…, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly.” With my mind seeing commas in lists as parentheses in math, what I’d figure as “…+(tuna)+((peanut butter)+(jelly))” would come out as the latter, the “and” just being an indication of the final item, the comma being more vital to maintaining the series. That’s just my hard-lined mind, though, but it would take the purest of anti-Oxfords to say a terminal comma wouldn’t be justifiable here…unless they’d just replace the PB’n’J “and” with an ampersand (“…, tuna and peanut butter & jelly”), which I’d expect would work well enough, too.

    In the paragraph above the last, though obviously not optimal, are more ways to assure you’re not misunderstood. We have a list begun with a colon and separated by semicolons, freeing comma use for the oft-mentioned appositives, literary parentheses for, again, more appositives, or other tangential information, and, erm, “dashes”… I honestly forget the term for these asides (it’s “asides”, isn’t it?), so if one must type in the same order as they would off-the-cuff orate, there are uglier-yet-clearer means to assure you’re not mistaken.

    Most optimally, you’d want to just rearrange sentences. In the paragraph above last, I rearranged “abrupt addition or afterthought” so it’s clear that “abrupt” didn’t apply to both terms, and this order wasn’t quite so preferred by me to insert another comma (“abrupt addition, or afterthought) or another article (“an abrupt addition or an afterthought”). In the example on the whole, it might be better to work “peanut butter and jelly” within two commas, the position least likely to be confused (“We have grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly, tuna, and ham,” over, “We have peanut butter and jelly, tuna, ham, and grilled cheese,” where a sillier mind would more readily suggest the latter is pairing peanut butter with jelly or tuna or ham or cheese.). In appositives, just use it as a title (“I went with my mother Irene, Bob, and some other random name.”) or an en-dash-ulated aside (“I went with Irene–that is, my mother–[, ]Bob and S.O.R.N.[.]”). Some are less elegant than others (I’m immediately regretting those dashes…), but above all, rule-of-thumb that if you stumble on your own written words when blindly orating them, change it up until they read sensibly.

    I find that I prefer the terminal comma, seeing it as more prone to clarifying my text than muddling it, so maintain it as a matter of consistency, even when it has a zero-effect on understanding.

    I hope the above satisfied the various talking points that’ve flitted through mind, but one I know I didn’t work in was asking your take on hyphenated words which include single-item terms of non-hyphenated words. What I’m painfully saying is — back to food — “peanut butter-infused” vs “peanut-butter-infused”? With mathy-parentheses, they’d come out as “((peanut)+((butter)+(infused)))” and “((peanut)+(butter)+(infused))” respectively, though neither are the intended “(((peanut)+(butter))+(infused))”. For this specifically, “infused with peanut butter” would be the easy way out, but on principle, I’m asking.

    (And end note, notice my inconsistency with spacing around dashes, and avoidance of using a single hyphen for dash. This is one bit that I’m still not settled on how I prefer to handle it, with my most comfortable assertion being, “…next-to-last words — last words.”)

    • Wow, sorry. It’s been a while since I checked the comments.

      With regards to the song, it actually annoyed me that Weird Al mentioned the comma—it’s not a point of grammar, it’s a point of style. I’ve seen many arguments for the Oxford comma, but it remains a stylistic choice.

      I’m actually not opposed to the comma per se, but I am opposed to it being a punctuation mark with a name because I feel that leads to teaching that ignores the point of the comma in favour of putting the comma without considering its function or where it really needs to go. In your example, a slavish adherent of the Oxford comma WOULD put a comma before “and jelly”, which is obviously nonsense.

      The act of naming something is powerful, I think. Generally, comma styles are absurd; one should use a comma when it’s appropriate and leave them out when they’re not. If one isn’t sure, my tendency is to leave it out, but I’m willing to bend on that as long as the person writing has thoughtfully considered what the sentence would be both with and without the comma.

      • That very last point relates to how I feel about, of all things, people who intentionally write badly. Not your common errors, no, but those who so beautifully break the language that they must have a higher understanding of how it’s meant to work, knowing the every way to get every little bit wrong.

        I wonder, at least in my own writings, if I were to loosen up and only use a comma preceding the last item of a list if that clarified matters, if the expectation of my inclusion/exclusion would itself lead to confusion. I remember being thrown off by Douglas Adams’s lack of use, but don’t recall anything of his suddenly using them, so that’s more just on me. But there’s other choices — stylistic or not — that I know I must’ve flopped on, like commas separating…oh, what would they be called?… dependent cluases at the start of a sentence? Heck, even that interjection could’ve flown without a comma, and I wouldn’t be surprised to’ve gone that route. There’s many more breaks from some personal form than this one, titled use of a comma.

        In our Internet age, it’s easier than ever to, instead of worry, ask for and deliver clarification if someone trips up on your words.

        Started wondering what the driving force behind the term “Oxford comma” even was, and first page I checked…didn’t answer that question, but led me to doubt if I had been using “terminal comma” or “serial comma” for the practice… *thinks to the “filled with loathing and self doubt” of the WAY song “Albuquerque”*

        To wrap, thank you for the reply. This is one of the things I’ve historically invested too snobbily in, so thank you for weathering my babble and an added help in my loosening up.

    • Did not understand any if what you said. Too many ,-() (())

      Not logical!

      Anyway, who, in their right mind, would leave peanut butter and jelly to be the last thing listed in a sandwich list!

      You would put it in the middles so that no confusion would happen.

      Today’s sandwiches are;

      Ham, peanut butter and jelly, cheese and tuna mayo

      • Oh, that “of”/”if” touch-typo is infuriating!

        I’m aware of my excessive parentheses, but deliberately indulge regardless.

        I agree that the best means of clarity is avoiding these situations. But my argument is to the justifiable utility of these terminal commas. Where your case argues commas as replacements for endless “and”s, mine would regard the final “and” (and “or”, or any other such) to indicate the final entry of a list.

        I was just thinking about this very page today, in a bout of MC Frontalot listening (namely, “Tongue-Clucking Grammarian”), and further realized that my adherence is to a largely unnecessary use. But, as I think I typed earlier — I really don’t like reading my prior writings — I’ll continue to keep to terminal comma use out of personal consistency.

  13. Commas

    Clauses and lists!

    I went to the ship and bought; apples, oranges, rice, bread, peas, sausages and a tin of beans.

    Commas are used here to divide up the sentence as it’s list based with a connective ‘and’ at the end. No need for a comma before ‘and’!

    James, who is a mechanic, likes to drive fast cars.

    Commas above show a clause where extra information has been added which could be, therefore, omitted from the sentence and the sentence would still make complete sense.

    Some people overuse commas.

  14. It seems strange to me that Americans are arguing over an Oxford Comma. I fail to see how using, or not using, such a thing eliminates ambiguity. We English use a Semi Colon to clarify thus there is no ambiguity when we write “Tea, coffee, sugar & milk.” It is screamingly obvious that there are 4 separate items.

    In the example “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” It is quite obvious the writer is referring to 4 or more people; Strippers being plural.

    The previous comment; by Mikki; gives a fine example of the use of a semi colon thus removing any confusion.

    English people write and say in standard English that it “Makes things clearer.”, or “Makes things more clear.”, but only the semi literate would every say “Makes things more clearer.”

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