Shooting Clay Pigeons And Men: Oxford Comma

Oxford comma

The controversy over the Oxford comma still rages on.

You think the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry is fierce? The squabbles between ‘Team Oxford Comma’ and the ‘No Comma Brigade’ can get even more heated.

You might have already picked a side. Or you might wonder what it’s all about.

What’s an Oxford Comma, anyway?

Basically, it’s the comma you place before the word ‘and’ when you’re writing a list. It’s called an ‘Oxford’ comma because it’s a requirement if you follow the Oxford University Press style guide.

The question of whether to use an Oxford comma or not has been around for quite a while. Otherwise cool-headed writers and academics get quite hot and bothered when the subject is raised.

I’m really not sure why. 

The arguments can be cooled down quite easily by following this principle: 
Forget about having a fixed ‘rule’ and just understand why a sentence might need an Oxford comma.

It seems pretty obvious that using the comma unnecessarily can make writing clunky. Leaving it out, though, can make a real mess of intended meaning.

When to use the Oxford comma

Most people separate items in a list by using commas. The dilemma arises when the final item has ‘and’ before it.

Should there be a comma before the ‘and’? In other words, ‘Do we use that Oxford comma or not?’

The solution is really quite simple. Just look at how the sentence reads — with the comma and without it.

Let’s start with an example that uses a simple list:

The Australian flag is red, white and blue

In this sentence, there is no need for the extra comma — for two reasons.

First, it is a list of similar items — in this case, simple adjectives (colours).

Second, the word ‘and’ does the job of separating the second and third adjectives, without any ambiguity. The meaning is perfectly clear.

Baking cakes and men

What about this sentence, included in a first draft of a personal profile my friend was writing?

Her interests are reading, baking cakes and men.

Some of you might think that baking men would improve them — make them more tender, maybe — but ouch! Better to put an Oxford comma in:

Her interests are reading, baking cakes, and men.

In this case, there’s a potential problem with meaning because the list items are not similar. The word ‘baking’ has a noun object (‘cakes’) and so leaving out the second comma results in a piece of nonsense, making it look as though ‘baking’ has two noun objects (‘cakes’ and ‘men’).

Solution: Oxford comma.

Sometimes writers choose to use semi-colons as separators, especially when the listed items are wordy, or contain verbs.

That’s what my friend decided to do in the final draft of her profile:

Her interests are: reading; going to the cinema; baking cakes; shooting clay pigeons; and men.

Failing to use that final semi-colon would result in another piece of nonsense.

Well, wouldn’t it?

If you want more, read on….

A tale of pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup, apparently, is something women need to watch out for. Remember, you’ve been warned….

I used to receive a newsletter that always previewed its feature articles in the email header. There were errors in almost every one; many of them were hilarious.

In one header, the editor was considerate enough to put women on the alert. Or was it just another Oxford comma controversy?

Former MPs in High Court allowances bid, how Centrelink assesses eBay sales, why more women suffer from Alzheimer’s and Roasted Pumpkin Soup

I was wondering what could possibly make women so susceptible to one of my winter favourites. Sad, really — I’d always thought of pumpkin soup as such a comforting food.

Then the situation escalated. The newsletter update featured this header:

Why more women suffer from Alzheimer’s, former MPs in High Court allowances bid, how Centrelink assesses eBay sales and Roasted Pumpkin Soup

Oh no! Pumpkin soup is also under investigation by Centrelink! There should be a label warning:

‘This soup is liable to cause women to suffer AND could also affect Centrelink benefits’.

Whatever next?

Of course, by now you know what was really going on.

An Oxford comma definitely would have been a handy solution.

You don’t need to take sides in the Oxford Comma Controversy. You don’t need to follow a rigid rule.

Just look thoughtfully and critically at what you write, from your readers’ point of view.

The main point I will make, as I always do, is this: 
Clarity should be your guide.

See more ways to Lift Your Language.