The Great Comma Debate

The news that Oxford University has advised against the use of the eponymous comma has had a disproportionate reaction. Among the better informed and more rational comments are those by Johnson of the ‘The Economist’ (‘You’ll just have to find something else to get worked up about today’) and Stan Carey  (‘Even in jest, the reactions seemed pretty extreme and obsessive to me’). Here’s my contribution.

Punctuation helps the reader make sense of what is written and a battery of marks is available to the careful writer. In the case of commas, it is the serial, or listing, comma that has caused so much fuss. Suppose we want to mention in a single sentence that we like a number of items such as:

A
B
C
D

If we write ‘I like A, B, C, and D’, the comma following C is the Oxford comma, so called because it is favoured by Oxford University Press (and continues to be so: it was the university rather than the publishing house that advised against its unthinking use). Given its provenance, it is odd that British practice more widely is actually to omit it, and write ‘I like A, B, C and D’, whereas American practice is to include it.

There are certainly instances in which a comma before and or or can remove ambiguity. In a sentence such as ‘I like A, B and C and D’, it is unclear whether B and C go together, or whether C and D do. A comma after B would show that the latter was the case (‘I like A, B, and C and D’), a comma after C, the former (‘I like A, B and C, and D’). This, however, is  poor justification for always inserting a comma before and or or in a sentence containing a list. The Oxford Dictionaries website tells us ‘The general rule is that one style or the other should be used consistently’, but why? Where a comma clarifies, I’m all for it. Where it adds nothing it is a distraction, clutters the page and leads to tedious discussions such as this.

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