Volume 32, Number 4

Fighting the Oppression… of Punctuation

Fred Schepartz

At the risk of provoking the grammar mavens into coming after me with torches and pitchforks, I make the following pronouncement:

I detest the Oxford comma.*

There, I’ve said. And now, come, ye villagers, come ye advocates of the Oxford comma.

Yes, I know the arguments.

Believe me, I know the Oxford comma can provide clarity.

I know the Oxford comma can alleviate ambiguity. I know that court cases have risen and fallen on the basis of the placement of a mere comma, where that lone comma can comprise a fulcrum upon which meaning lies.

Note the emphasis on the word can.

Sometimes a sentence requires that Oxford comma to ensure clear meaning. When that is the case, that is when I use it. When the Oxford comma is required, I use it. Simple as that. Use it when necessary. Otherwise, don’t use it.

Is that so difficult?

For instance, if I went to lunch with my roommates, along with two people I don’t live named named Tom and Molly, I would write: “Today I went to lunch with my roommates, Tom, and Molly.” That somewhat clears up the notion that my roommates are Tom and Molly, though I think a better construction would be “Today I went to lunch with my roommates, along with Tom and Molly.”

I get that.

However, consider the following:

“Maggie listed her points A, B and C.” The meaning of this sentence is absolutely, unequivocally clear. It would not be any clearer if written, “Maggie listed her points A, B, and C.”

So why do I hate the Oxford comma?

To me, it’s a matter of aesthetics. I find that the Oxford comma can clutter up a sentence. I find the Oxford comma a bit fussy, to be perfectly honest.

I love the written word. I guess I always have. As one friend so aptly put it several years ago, I have printer’s ink in my veins, which is a bit ironic these days since Mobius has been strictly digital for more than a decade. However, even in digital form, this publication more resembles print than the myriad of other digital platforms out there.

The aesthetic of a block of text matters to me. For instance, my preferred business letter format is single-spaced text, double-spaced between paragraphs, not indented!

Seriously, what kind of maniac indents when there’s double-spacing between paragraphs?

You indent when the text is single-spaced between paragraphs to indicate a new paragraph.

The double-spacing provides more white space and makes the letter easier to read. The indenting is silly and unnecessary.

And thus the Oxford comma. It is not required, and yet some people insist on using it all the time. We are intelligent people. We know when that extra comma is needed to clarify a sentence’s meaning.

We should be sure to remember that this is a matter of style. When I write at my job as a paralegal, I use the Oxford comma because it is required. The Chicago Manual of Style requires its usage. The Associated Press AP Stylebook does not require it, but does not prohibit it though I believe that years ago the AP Stylebook did prohibit use of the Oxford comma. I think if I were to dig up my copy from 40 years ago, I would find that prohibition. My guess is that so many reporters didn’t know any better, and with copy editors disappearing from newsrooms due to budget cuts, the AP just had to throw up its hands though it did not entirely surrender to the authoritarianism of the Oxford comma.

Mobius style (or because I said so) is that the Oxford comma is not necessary and should not be used unless absolutely necessary. As part of my line-editing, I voraciously delete superfluous Oxford commas.

And speaking of style, I am also a stickler for putting a comma before “and” when the conjunction joins two independent clauses.

I get it. You might be thinking that style is in contradiction, that this comma is the same as the Oxford comma, but is getting preferential treatment.

Well, we’re really comparing apples and oranges here. I like the way this additional comma looks, and I appreciate how it provides additional emphasis to the fact that it is linking two complete sentences, two complete thoughts.

And that is actually a rule, not a recommendation, like the Oxford comma.

And just a little aside, the conjunction is necessary to prevent a run-on sentence. Lacking the conjunction, a semi-colon must be used to form a complete sentence.

While we’re on this topic, remember to use a comma to join dependent and independent clauses, when the dependent clause comes first.

There you have it. Don’t be a grammar lemming. Decide for yourself whether the Oxford comma is right for you, whether the Oxford comma fits your own personal needs. Throw off the yoke of Oxford-comma oppression.


A few quick hits:

The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict was atrocious. The judge should be disbarred. Sad to say, I was not entirely surprised by the verdict. The families of the victims should sue Rittenhouse for wrongful death. Rittenhouse must not be allowed to profit from his killing of two people and the maiming of a third.

A year ago, I wrote that the Republican Party has become the party of the lunatic fringe. I stand by that statement and would add that the Republican Party is also the party of white supremacy and autocracy. Forget what they say. Pay attention to what they do.

With the Omicron variant looming on the horizon, I’m glad that Biden is talking seriously about getting doses out to the world because the only way to prevent new variants is to get the whole world vaccinated. However, this should have been the plan from the beginning.

Lastly, I hope we can be optimistic about a better 2022 with a better handle on Covid and a bit more kindness and sanity.


*NB: Our poetry editor feels, on the whole, a good deal of affection for the Oxford comma, when judiciously applied.