Your Oxford Comments

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Calling all friends and foes of the serial comma! In just a few moments, we’ll be tackling the greatest grammatical debate of our time: Should you use an Oxford comma? Emma Green, having previously defended all-things Oxford comma, will be advocating for said comma on Facebook Live at 3pm EST today. Meanwhile, we welcome your arguments against, and you can submit them to me in real-time, so be sure to tune in!

While we wait, here are four arguments submitted by readers already.

The confusion argument:

Here’s a fun one for you. “I had a party last weekend. I invited the president, Barack Obama, and three of my friends.”

So: How many people did I invite? If the correct answer is five (which it is, because I invited the president of something other than the United States), that means that the Oxford comma created confusion that could have been avoided if I'd omitted it. “I invited the president, Barack Obama and three of my friends” clearly indicates that Barack Obama and the president, in this context, are separate people.

And before you say “this is a preposterous example where confusion could be easily avoided by an author with good sense,” realize that you now know exactly how I feel about every sentence trotted out in defense of the Oxford comma by its fans.

The “speedbump on an exit ramp” argument:

At the risk of offending E.B. White and William Strunk, Kill The Oxford Comma. It’s like a speedbump on an exit ramp. It jars you and serves no purpose. The word “and” already tells you the next word is part of the list. You don't need an unnatural pause before it.

And yes, I have 30 years in print journalism.

The “sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t” argument:

I think it’s so funny how people get super heated about it! Sometimes it makes sense to use it and sometimes it doesn’t. So sometimes I use it and sometimes I don’t! (Which I fully realize is blasphemy to many. And I was trained as a journo to us AP style.) If the meaning of your sentence is changed by your punctuation, then you need to look at your whole sentence structure, not just the comma. It’s a symptom of unclear writing.

The racism/elitism argument:

I have to disagree with Emma Green: Always using the Oxford comma isn’t a matter of “principle” or of personal virtue. A person saying so might as well be proudly claiming that they only write in the present tense, or only print documents on A4 paper.

Okay. You dedicated a book to “my parents, God and Stalin”. I've heard this example a hundred times (usually with Ayn Rand in place of Stalin, tho) and it's always cited as proof that you MUST use the Oxford comma.

So I dedicated a book to “my boyfriend, the President, and Yoko Ono". Is Barack Obama my boyfriend? Maybe! Using the Oxford comma has created structural ambiguity instead of reducing it. OH NO WHAT NOW?

If a publication wants to insist on always using the comma or never using it, that is their right (editors gonna edit), but there will always be cases like the two above where mandating one style might trip a reader up for a moment. If the goal is clarity, allowing a free choice would be ever so slightly better.

But picking one side of a stylistic question and rooting for it to trounce the opposing team has costs beyond occasionally boring people at parties. Usage shibboleths ultimately draw their power from—and lend their power back to—our society's tradition of declaring that the right sort of people (rich people? white people? men? kind of depends which cultural battleground you're on and which year it is) are "speaking correctly" and everyone else is ... well, they're just not EDUCATED, not like we are. If only they would learn!

Yeah, I went there. Puffing yourself up about the Oxford comma, even for funsies, implicates you in systems of racist bullshit that you probably didn't wake up this morning hoping to empower. Is it worth it?

Watch Emma answer that question and others live on Facebook.