Thanks to my son, Peter, Vampire Weekend’s song “Oxford Comma” now resides in my iTunes library. I love the song, especially its insistent chorus “Who gives a @#&! about an Oxford comma?” I do, of course.
The Oxford or serial comma precedes a conjunction (“and” or “or”) before the final item in a series of three or more. For example: red, white, and blue or Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett. Some people omit the second comma; others, including me, retain it. (And some people, as Vampire Weekend points out, don’t give a @#&!.)
Why do I? Two reasons:
1. Clarity. The Oxford comma ensures that there is no ambiguity about what you are trying to say. Consider this sentence: Among my heroes are my two sons, James Joyce, and Larry Bird. That's four heroes in all: Peter and Evan, James Joyce, and Larry Bird. But when you remove the Oxford comma, the meaning is no longer clear: Among my heroes are my two sons, James Joyce and Larry Bird. Looks like the writer and basketball legend are now part of my family!
2. Consistency. Since the Oxford comma is essential to avoiding confusion in some instances, I prefer to use it in all instances. In writing, consistent punctuation conveys command of the language and craft. Haphazard use of the Oxford comma will make your writing look sloppy.
Language, like us, is constantly evolving, so it is inevitable that conventions will change. However, I hold fast to the tradition of the Oxford comma — not because it’s old school, but because it contributes to clear communication.
Where do you stand in the Oxford comma debate?