To Pause or Not to Pause: the Oxford Comma Debate

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By Clover Carroll

In her delightfully witty 2003 bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss mentions several analogies to explain the role of punctuation in written language. Punctuation marks can be thought of as traffic signals, as stitching holding the fabric of language together, or—my favorite—simply as “a courtesy designed to help the reader understand a story without stumbling.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines punctuation as “The … system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation” (italics mine), and “In reading or speaking: the … articulation of appropriate pauses and phrasing.” Like musical notation, Truss continues, punctuation suggests the rhythm, tone, and flow of a piece of writing, showing us “how to hum the tune.” She concludes that without (accurate) punctuation, “there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”

I couldn’t agree more. Punctuation is not a superfluous nuisance, a space hog, or unnecessary clutter. I value and rely on judicious punctuation to pace and shape the voice I hear in my head as I read, providing vital signs of phrasing and emphasis. Although William Faulkner and e.e. cummings—pioneers in the movement to reduce or eliminate punctuation that began in the early 20th century and continues today—are two of my favorite authors, their deletions only work because our expectations are thwarted, and we recognize the absence of the many commas and semicolons that would have appeared if, say, Charles Dickens had edited their work. This awareness of the silence, so to speak, is what Truss calls the “seventh sense” of grammar sticklers like herself, because “we see dead punctuation” (an allusion to the 1999 film The Sixth Sense, in which the protagonist sees dead people).

One of the most rapidly disappearing punctuation marks these days (following in the footsteps of the ghostly hyphen, uppercase letter, and space between words) is the Oxford comma—so named because the Oxford University Press style guide has required it for over 100 years. Not to be out-Britished, American grammarians have also dubbed it the Harvard Comma. But it is most commonly known as the Serial Comma, because it is the last comma in a series of three or more items. For example, in ‘at the zoo we may see lions, tigers, or bears’ or ‘at the holidays, we give thanks for family, friends, and food’ the comma before the and/or is the serial comma. Although still required by the Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and American Psychological Association (APA) style guides, it is discouraged by most journalistic style guides such as the Associated Press (AP) and New York Times. With this kind of ambivalence even among the authorities, it is no wonder that the use or omission of this comma has become a matter of heated controversy. While punctuation minimalists believe it takes up space and creates unnecessary clutter, traditionalists believe it adds clarity and balance to written expression.

I’m a believer in this tiny, maligned little curl of ink. I always put it in my series, and never omit it. In my opinion, not only does the Oxford comma clarify the meaning of many (if not most) affected sentences, but, equally as important, its absence speeds up the pace of the sentence, robbing the reader of a needed mental pause. ‘We give thanks for friends, family and food’ causes the family and food, in my mind, to bump up against each other and get gravy all over grandpa’s chin. Why do friends merit a pause, a kind of set aside, while family doesn’t? The reader, left to fend for him or herself, has to go back and imagine the appropriate space between them. Sentences without this comma remind me of the breathless haste deliberately created by e. e. cummings in his poem “In Just-,“ when “eddieandbill come / running from marbles and / piracies… / and bettyandisbel come dancing / from hop-scotch and jump-rope and it’s / spring.” Perhaps this change in our language reflects the newly accelerated pace of our lives, and the current trend toward downsizing. I’m all for concision, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

In my original examples above, the final comma could be removed without much confusion; ‘lions, tigers or bears’ is pretty transparent. However, in the case of ‘our Thanksgiving menu will include pumpkin, apple, and pecan pie,’ if written without the Oxford comma, becomes ‘our Thanksgiving menu will include pumpkin, apple and pecan pie.’ To me, this is patently confusing. We might be talking about three pies or two, the second containing both apples and pecans. While it might not be needed in the series red, white and blue, it is needed when there is another ‘and’ in the series, as in ‘I went to the pharmacy, Lord & Taylor and WalMart.’ Without a comma after Taylor, the name of my final stop could as well have been Taylor and WalMart if unfamiliar with these store names. If I were to write, ‘I invited Betty, an opera singer and a ventriloquist to my Thanksgiving dinner,’ you might think that Betty is both an opera singer and a ventriloquist. And I don’t even want to discuss the store title, Bed Bath & Beyond! Don’t our minds have to imagine the pauses that commas would supply in order to make sense of it at all? What on earth might ‘bed bath’ refer to? And if we don’t even know what it is, how can we go beyond it? We can sometimes clarify the meaning by changing the order of the items in the list—for example, moving Betty to position #3 for ‘I invited an opera singer, a ventriloquist and Betty,’ or replacing the ‘and’ with ‘as well as.’ But this would take up even more of the precious journalistic space.

Truss’s position on the Oxford comma is genially open-minded. She views the decision of whether to include it or not as entirely a matter of style and utility, to be decided on a case-by-case basis and used only when it might cause confusion to omit it. But since consistency is the goal of most grammar rules, why dither? If we use the Oxford comma consistently in every series, as so many sensible style guides advise, we won’t need to decide each individual case, and we avoid any possible opportunity for confusion that we might have missed. Truss’s title example, though not in need of a serial comma, provides an excellent argument for the need for careful punctuation. To this description of a panda bear who “eats shoots and leaves,” the addition of any commas at all would create a more apt summary of Wyatt Earp’s behavior at the OK Corral: He eats, shoots, and leaves!

I’ll leave it to you to choose a side in this debate, if you haven’t already. I will remain a stickler. Communication is a two-way street, a kind of compact between writer and reader. As a writer, I seldom assume that what I meant to say is what actually comes across. It is my responsibility to give the reader as much help as I can in deciphering the meaning I intend. I don’t want him to have to work hard simply to decode the syntax, but rather to use his/her energy to reflect on the message itself. An extra comma costs so little! Without the Oxford comma, the reader is left to fend for him or herself in solving the mystery of what the author was trying to say, and how s/he meant her prose to sound. For more info, visit www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/what-is-the-oxford-comma and/or watch the entertaining TEDEd talk called “Grammar’s Great Divide: the Oxford Comma debate” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptM7FzyjtRk.

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