Tag Archives: oxford comma

The Oxford comma fault*

“What the internet desperately needs is another blog post about the Oxford comma,” wrote Tom Freeman on his blog, “The Stroppy Editor.”

Well, I, at least, needed it. “We have to face the awful truth,” wrote Freeman: “the Oxford comma is not a magical blade that can chop any sentence into slices of perfect meaning. It’s just one fallible tool among many.” I did think that the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma or, without any ivy, the serial comma) is a magical blade for chopping away ambiguity.

Years ago, some ingenious editor came up with an example that shows how far the meaning can go astray without the magical Oxford comma:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Without the comma, Ayn Rand and God can be read as a nonrestrictive appositive (having the same meaning as the noun they follow) rather than the last two items in a series of three—suggesting that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Insert an Oxford comma after Rand and it chops the words into slices of perfect meaning. But the Oxford comma sometimes “creates the very ambiguity or absurdity that it’s supposed to remove,” wrote Freeman, and he used an alternative version of the same example to prove his point:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.

That sentence is clear enough without the Oxford comma. In fact, adding the comma makes it ambiguous: it could be a series, or Ayn Rand could be a nonrestrictive appositive for mother (my mother = Ayn Rand):

This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

So I endorse Freeman’s advice concerning the Oxford comma: “Use it when you must, avoid it when you must, choose as you prefer (or as your readers will prefer) when you can, and rewrite whenever that would be better.”

* This title is a pun. The punctuation error known as the comma fault or comma splice is to separate two independent clauses with a comma rather than with a semicolon or period.