Tuesday 13 July 2010

The Oxford Comma

When Americans write lists they tend to do it like this:

The Inky Fool is always floating, gloating, thinking, stinking, and winking.

Those who never felt the need to waste tea in Boston Harbo(u)r tend to write it like this:

The Inky Fool is always floating, gloating, thinking, stinking and winking.

The English do not usually insert the comma before and. However, a chap called F.H. Collins insisted that you should, and it therefore became the house style of the Oxford University Press. So it's called an Oxford Comma*. There are myriad arguments for and against the Oxford comma. People cite authority, precedent, Fowler, ambiguity, concision(,) and almost everything else. These are not my concern.

I would merely like to point out that lists with an Oxford comma seem to build to a climax. The comma sets off the final noun and gives it emphasis.

You are my PA, my friend, my lover, and my god.

The commaless list, on the other hand seems more reasonable and less exciting.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry.

I would choose my punctuation based not on some rule, but on the way in which I would like you, mysterious reader, to read the sentence.

Now watch this:

*Or, sometimes, a serial comma.

P.S. There's an immemorial superstition that if you sleep with a book under your pillow the information therein will somehow seep into your brain. I have no idea whether this can be scientifically proved, but I used to live above the Oxford University Press Bookshop.


  1. The Antipodean, tearing herself away from the extremely taxing holiday business of lolling on a couch reading, interspersed with eating, drinking and the odd nap, went to all the effort of turning on her laptop and14 July 2010 at 08:50

    Ahah... I wondered where yesterday's post was. This didn't show up in my feed, presumably because of its previous premature publication. (ahh: accidental alliteration.)

  2. The Antipodean, realising she had forgotten to say anything about the content, possibly due to holiday-induced indolence, then14 July 2010 at 09:04

    And I'm pleased you agree that I can use it as I please, although I probably would've continued to do so regardless. I find it can help clarify things in more complex lists, where semi-colons would just not be quite right. It should be noted, however, that I was educated at exactly the wrong time for learning anything whatsoever about grammar and the most grammar I've ever been formally taught was in a basic French class.

    The sleeping-above-the-bookshop theory (assuming that you slept there) would explain a few things Dogberry: mind you, you'd have to demonstrate your scientific knowledge to complete the theory.

    *sigh* I was in Oxford this time last year.