Whether you call it the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma, it will cause a division in grammar geek circles wherever you go – but why does such an innocuous punctuation mark result in such amateur dramatics?
Arguments for and against are so passionate they can border on psychotic, but oddly enough, it appears to be only among English speakers – the Oxford comma seems to be completely ignored by other languages and dialects!
So what is this mark of contention?
The serial comma, which is often referred to as the Oxford or Harvard comma because of its usage in their respective university press issues, is a comma used after the penultimate item in a list, and before the conjunction, to avoid ambiguity.
If that’s clear as mud, let’s look at a few examples of why the serial comma is important, which should prove that despite arguments against, it should be used consistently – not neglected to save space, or only used for clarity, as is the case with most print media in the UK and US.
Solely for the purposes of this article, in the unlikely event of my having to order my drinks by writing a list of them, the serial comma is a good friend to have.
“I like to drink wine, beer, gin and milk” as opposed to “I like to drink wine, beer, gin, and milk” – the Oxford comma makes more sense and avoids the dreadful scenario of possibly having a gin and milk concoction brought to me – ugh!
More common examples of the importance of the serial comma are the following:
"We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin," which suggests the strippers’ names were JFK and Stalin; but the whole gang are invited in the following example: "We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin."
Of course, there is an argument against it, which can be demonstrated here using the same subjects as before – in this case, the serial comma means that the stripper’s name could be JFK."We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin" compared to "We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin." But hopefully common sense prevails in these rare cases against my beloved serial comma.
Whereas in English the serial comma is disappointedly considered optional, it seems to not occur at all in French, Spanish, German, or Asian languages, possibly because of a different spoken cadence of sentences.
The debate over the serial comma is no better highlighted than in Lynne Truss’s popular book ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ – see what she did there?
"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken," says Truss.
But the one thing we can try to agree on, even if it’s wrong, is that it’s a freedom of choice whether you use it or not; just don’t omit it around me – I’m a life-long, fully fledged, signed-up, fan-club member of the serial, Oxford, and Harvard commas!
If you're still coming to grips with the English language – confusing punctuation and all – consider signing up for one of our courses in a city near you.