In response to a TikTok circulating the Twittersphere about using the Oxford comma, Nathanael Blake contended here at The Federalist that using the punctuation mark signifies bad writing. While his was one of the most novel defenses I’ve heard, I simply cannot allow such a nonsensical idea to go unchallenged.
Blake appeals to the video of a young girl explaining the necessity for the comma by dissecting the sentence, “I thanked my parents, Batman, and Superman.” In this sentence, she argues, removing the serial comma after “Batman” creates ambiguity. Is she thanking three different people, or are Batman and Superman her parents?
This example, says Blake, actually reveals the Oxford comma’s “dangers.” (I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve personally never found serial commas to pose any grave threat.)
Blake’s suggestions for fixing the superhero sentence are hardly improvements, though.
For starters, he says, “The example could be changed to ‘I thanked my parents — and Batman and Superman.’” To condemn the Oxford comma by reason of its being “never elegant” or interfering “with good composition,” only to suggest an em dash as a remedy is self-defeating. An em dash? Talk about “interrupt[ing] the flow of a beautiful passage.” If ever there were a crutch for bad writing, it is the em dash.
Further, he offers, “I thanked my parents. I also thanked Batman and Superman,” as a preferable construction, shortly after saying we should get rid of the Oxford comma the same way “we omit unnecessary words.” If nixing the Oxford comma results in less-concise writing, I reject the idea that the mark is inimical to good composition.
This entire analysis assumes, however, that the sentence in question is an adequate case study. Whether you favor the serial comma or not, the superhero sentence is intended to be ridiculous for emphasis. But of course, most comma crises aren’t quite so silly.
Scrapping the Oxford Comma Could Cost You … $5 Million
For instance, in a Maine case involving dairy delivery drivers, a missing Oxford comma came with a $5 million price tag over a state labor law. Under the rule, certain tasks were excepted from receiving overtime pay, and the law read as follows:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Absent a comma, “packing for shipment or distribution” reads easily as a single task, and when the drivers argued they should not be excluded from overtime pay because they did not do any packing, their employers didn’t have a leg, or a comma, to stand on. The drivers received a $5 million settlement for uncompensated overtime, all over simple comma. It doesn’t seem so “superfluous” now, does it?
Put Yourself in the Readers’ Shoes
Assuming most comma omissions don’t cost millions of dollars, what Blake fails to realize is that while the Oxford comma is a writer’s tool, it belongs as much to the reader. If a writer’s goal is to convey an idea, he must assume the position of the reader, striving for clarity rather than self-gratifying construction. Why risk readers misconstruing your ideas, or making a laughingstock of your writing, when the opportunity cost is adding a simple comma? Ask Politico:
Newt Gingrich, a three-star Air Force general and former publicist for Michael Jackson and Prince want to create a $2 billion sweepstakes to see who can establish and run the first lunar base https://t.co/Pp40LUqZ7x
— POLITICO (@politico) August 19, 2019
Anti-Oxford comma apologists frequently argue serial commas are unnecessary because readers derive sentence meaning from context, not commas. To steal a sample sentence from Blake, consider, “Faith, hope and love remain.” Some, including Blake, would argue a comma isn’t necessary after “hope” because context dictates “faith, hope, and love” belong to the same series. But as I, the reader, gaze over the sentence, I consume it left to right and, although quickly, only a word or two at a time.
As my eyes pass from the comma after “faith” to the word “hope” absent a comma, the missing punctuation signals to my brain that I am not looking at a series, but rather an instance of direct address. (This is particularly noteworthy because while people usually use the presence of imprecise appositives in defense of the Oxford comma, missing serial commas even complicate direct address.)
The sentence “Faith, hope and love remain,” could just as easily convey that the writer is telling a girl named Faith that hope and love remain. Of course, by the time I reach the end of the sentence, I’ve realized that isn’t the message the writer intended to communicate, but by then I’m probably rewinding to re-read the sentence under new contextual enlightenment.
A sentence this short only requires a fraction of a second to process for clarity, but that split second compounds to wasted time and frustration in the context of a 2,000-word essay, or heaven forbid a book, without any Oxford commas (I find Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” maddening for this reason).
These commas don’t break up the flow of beautiful sentences. On the contrary, they facilitate seamless reader comprehension, only breaking up sentence flow for people who fixate on and vehemently oppose them, or in other words, for pompous writers who think they’re above punctuation rules.
Using the Oxford Comma Is a Good Standard
Full disclosure, I am an editor, and granted, Blake does cede the legitimacy of an editor’s frustrations as they seek to clarify ambiguity in writing. For editors, as well as lawyers and corporate types, he says:
Requiring the Oxford comma is a means to establish basic standards for written precision. However, mandating the Oxford comma also makes bad writing compulsory. Specific fields, such as legal writing, might find standardization more important than elegance, but they are the exception.
Why is legal writing the exception, and why shouldn’t all writers strive for written precision? Further, standardization and elegance are not mutually exclusive, so why does Blake juxtapose the two?
He and other grammatical anarchists will tell you the Oxford comma is a legalistic trap editors and lawyers set, ensnaring otherwise exceptional writers in compositional mediocrity, but plenty of poor writers don’t use the Oxford comma, and many good writers do. Rules and the application of mechanics are not inherently legalistic, and Blake fails to make a compelling case for the superiority of his sentence restructuring.
Not to mention, we writers have bigger compositional fish to fry, such as clichés (like “fish to fry”), passive voice, and conciseness. Getting rid of the Oxford comma is really the least of our English problems.
“The good writer is the standard” of good writing, says Blake. I couldn’t agree more, which is why I firmly favor punctuation that aids in clarity, conciseness, and composition: three marks of a good writer, all separated by commas.