There’s a cartoon about commas going around on the Internet.
The first panel reads: “With the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” The illustration shows four people: two men, one bearing a resemblance to JFK and the other to Stalin, and two women in G-strings and high heels.
The second panel reads: “Without the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” above an illustration of just two people: men resembling JKF and Stalin, who themselves are wearing G-strings and high heels.
If you’re looking to pick a side in a silly war, you can stop reading now. That’s all the ammo you need to join the legions of people who believe that the Oxford comma is king. But if you want a clear picture of why this just isn’t so, keep reading.
The Oxford comma, often called the serial comma, is placed before a conjunction such as “and” in a list: “The flag is red, white, and blue.” Not everyone puts a comma here. Most news media don’t use the serial comma: “The flag is red, white and blue.”
It’s not about right or wrong. It’s only about style. Associated Press style, which is followed by many news outlets, says not to use it. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by most book publishers and many magazine publishers, insists that the serial comma prevents confusion.
Does it? Let’s look at our cartoon example. In the sentence, “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin,” the absence of an Oxford comma creates the possibility that JFK and Stalin are the strippers. This is due to a grammatical function known as the appositive.
Look at these sentences: I will visit my best friend, Donna, this summer. I saw his new car, a red Prius, parked out front. The CEO, a highly effective manager, will give a talk.
In those examples, “Donna,” “a red Prius” and “a highly effective manager” are all functioning as appositives. An appositive is basically just a noun phrase that restates another noun phrase that came before it. It’s a reworded repeat.
Appositives are always set off with commas. Sometimes those commas are crucial. For example, if I wrote “My sister, Diane, will attend,” you know that “Diane” is a just a restating of “my sister.” The implication is that I have just one sister. But if I write “My sister Diane will attend,” the implication is that “Diane” is needed to specify exactly what I mean by “sister.” In other words: I have more than one.
So commas are used to indicate that a noun is just restating another noun that comes before it — i.e. that the second is appositive.
“The strippers, JFK and Stalin,” does indeed leave open the possibility that JFK and Stalin are the strippers. Not pretty. A serial comma here would eliminate the possibility, making it clear that the three noun phrases are distinct. So this example is a good argument for the serial comma.
But does this mean the serial comma is best? Nope. Change the first noun phrase from plural “the strippers” to singular “the stripper” and you’ll see why: In “The stripper, JFK, and Stalin,” the serial comma, instead of preventing confusion, is causing confusion. It’s creating the possibility that JFK is an appositive of “the stripper.” That would mean he is stripper. Omitting the serial comma would preclude that possibility. We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.
So which approach should you follow? It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent. If you want your writing to mimic the news media, skip the serial comma. If you want to fall in line with book publishers as well as most of academia, use it. Just don’t believe that either side has cornered the market on preserving JFK’s dignity.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.