The Subtle Necessity of the Poor, Hated Oxford Comma

Who cares about the Oxford Comma? Sky News probably does about now, after an embarrassing news alert went viral.

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"Who gives a f--- about an Oxford Comma?" wondered Vampire Weekend in a now-iconic 2008 track.

Sky News probably does right about now. Or it should, at least. The 24-hour British news network widely embarrassed itself yesterday with a poorly edited news alert that's gone viral. Here, take it from one of Twitter's resident grammar nazis:

around) as evidence of why the Oxford Comma—a popular name for the otherwise termed serial comma that separates the final two items in a list—is so crucial. Slate thinks the screenshot makes the whole case.

Actually, that's a fairly poor example of the Oxford Comma's real (though often maligned) necessity. It's too obvious. Sure, there really should be a comma there. But with an elementary understanding of English, any moderately informed news consumer can quickly infer that those are three phrases instead of two and no such same-sex marriage will be taking place.

But in other, less obvious instances, skimping out on an Oxford Comma does breed confusion, and it's the sort that won't dissipate after you've given it a second glance. A presumably very useful site called The Write Practice highlights this example:

Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.

Amanda's boyfriend is an herbalist and a pet detective? Actually, she's hanging out with three people. Without the comma, we can't tell! And the Oxford Comma can be especially useful on menus, where it's used to keep items that are served together, like "fish and chips" or "eggs and toast," apart from other items being listed, to clarify that they're a single unit.

A funnier example of the comma's necessity, via Mental Floss, gives an apparently real book dedication:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

A bit like the Sky News alert, it should be obvious that there should be a second comma in there. But that's a sentence in a book, not a breathless news alert, and so the goofy ambiguity isn't so well-excused. And anyway, if the author was in fact birthed by the coupling of Ayn Rand and God, that's a book we'd like to read.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.