Bringing the Grammar Hammer Down on the Comma Drama


Alec Killoran
Features Editor

The serial comma, or “Oxford” comma, is unnecessarily the subject of much debate among English scholars. The serial comma carries no different grammatical baggage than any other kind of comma. The entire point of grammar is to make communication in language uniform so that any idea or message can be presented in an unambiguous way. The autocratic decree of the serial comma’s usage is lazy and can inhibit the clarity of a message.

The only reason any debate exists on the serial comma is the strange nature of lists of words. In some cases, adding a comma before a conjunction like “and” can provide clarity. In others it can produce unnecessary ambiguity. Take the following sentence: “I enjoy television, sports, and music.” In this sentence, the serial comma makes it explicitly clear that “music” and “sports” are not modifiers of “television,” and that they stand alone in a list. In this case, the serial comma removes a potential ambiguity. Without the serial comma, the message could be misconstrued in such a way that the reader may think the writer enjoys sports television like ESPN and music television like MTV.

Conversely, look at the sentence: “I like my friend, Parisa, and Jane.” In this sentence, the serial comma provides an unnecessary ambiguity. The comma makes it unclear whether “my friend” is “Parisa,” or if “my friend” is somebody entirely separate from “Parisa.” The removal of the serial comma in this case makes the sentence uniformly clear. Accepting that the point of grammar’s existence is to clarify communication, it would be ridiculous to make the mandatory inclusion of the serial comma a grammatical standard.

There isn’t anything wrong with using the serial comma. There is something wrong with insisting on its usage in every possible case. It is a comfortable rule to live by, and not many problems will generally arise with its usage. That said, to make it a set rule is a product of lazy grammar. In many sentences written, like this one, commas are used or omitted freely in order to better communicate an idea. The serial comma is just another example of a comma being used or omitted in order to maintain the integrity of a message. Just because it works out most of the time doesn’t mean it is acceptable to issue a blanket mandate on its usage. Any grammatical rule that unnecessarily creates an equivocal sentence is a rule that should not exist.

Because of this, most accepted authorities on grammar have retracted their blanket support of the serial comma, instead offering a more nuanced approach to its usage. It is important to note that I am not arguing that the serial comma should be mandatorily stricken from any sentence. I am arguing that it should not be mandatorily added to any sentence. It is better to actively choose when and where a comma is appropriate than to lazily throw a comma into a sentence without evaluating its impact on the message.  In my previously stated examples, it is clear that the serial comma is nothing more than any other kind of comma, and is not always needed.

But hey, it’s easy to support a rule that takes all the thought out of the process of using a comma. By all means, use the serial comma every time if that makes writing a sentence easier. Just don’t expect your handle on grammar and communication to improve much. In my opinion, though, preserving the integrity of a message is much more important than a dogmatic adherence to a rule that works most of the time.