The Oxford Comma is Actually Useful – A Fisking

I don’t understand why I keep seeing memes about the Oxford Comma. It’s a nerdy thing to meme about, but it’s also, I suppose, a sign of health that people care that much about quality.

But this is the 21st century, and we will have our stupid Hot Takes. Here’s the Federalist, an online mag generically of the right, having the dumbest Hot Take of the Year: Why Using the Oxford Comma is a Sign of Bad Writing.

Original in Bold, my responses in Italic.

Oxford commas are the galoshes of grammar: sometimes necessary to avoid a mess, but never elegant. Mandating the Oxford comma is inimical to good writing. Just as we omit unnecessary words, so too should we excise excess punctuation.

The first statement seems not entirely unreasonable, depending on what we mean by “elegant”. But the second statement seems like a dweeby hot-take stretch. Anything in excess should be excised, but you have to demonstrate why it’s excessive.

Consider a recent example circulating online, in which a young woman argues for the Oxford comma by breaking down the phrase, “I thanked my parents, Batman, and Superman.” She points out that removing the comma after “Batman” could change the meaning to suggest that Batman and Superman are the writer’s parents, rather than additional persons being thanked. Rather than proving the necessity of requiring the Oxford comma, however, this example illuminates its dangers.

Its “dangers”? There’s Danger in an Oxford comma? What happens if you use it too much? Do you start mispronouncing words, like saying “Magdalen” as “Maudlin”?

Incidentally, the clause “Rather than proving the necessity of requiring the Oxford comma,” would be improved by removing “of requiring”. “Rather than proving the necessity of the Oxford comma,” conveys the same meaning.

Although the ridiculous nature of the example makes it more vivid, it also reveals that context frequently moots the need for the Oxford comma. In this case, context would likely show the phrase was not meant to claim superhero lineage.

Context would likely show that in this particular case, yes. Because it is extreme. 

Furthermore, the example shows how using the Oxford comma encourages lazy writing. Relying on the Oxford comma for list-making may be clarifying, but it often interferes with good composition.

So we’re substituting a rule on the Oxford comma with a rule that says List-Making is Bad. I eagerly await proof of this Rule.

Assuming the example phrase is humorous, the humor relies on the incongruity between thanking one’s parents and thanking a pair of fictitious superheroes. As currently constructed, however, the wording weakens this, regardless of whether the Oxford comma is included.

This assumption has no warrant. The sentence (not phrase, sentence) is supplied without that precious context. It is intended as an example, not as a story. You are constructing a straw-man.

Simply rearranging the list to “I thanked Batman, Superman and my parents” eliminates the need to use the Oxford comma. It also places the incongruity at the end of the phrase, rather than the middle, thereby giving it more effect.

Here’s my problem with the anti-Oxfords/Cambridgians: if you need a comma to separate “Batman” and “Superman”, why do you not need one to separate “Superman” from “and my parents”? Elements of a list do not cease to be so because an “and” has been included.

“I thanked Batman Superman and my parents.” The same information is conveyed this way, and we’re not likely to be confused that Batman and Superman are not individual beings. But we want the comma there, don’t we? Why then should we not have the second comma? Elements of a list separated by the brief comma pause – it’s not difficult.

If the writer still wished to keep filial piety at the fore, there is a variety of ways to do this that highlights the contrast with the concluding thanks to superheroes. The example could be changed to “I thanked my parents — and Batman and Superman” or “I thanked my parents. I also thanked Batman and Superman.”

Neither of these are more “elegant” than the original. Hyphens are not substitutes for commas: they draw greater attention to the thing separated. To use a hyphen is to shout “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS”. That might be useful, depending on the context (which again, isn’t really relevant to this example sentence), but over-use of hyphens is far more glaring than that of commas. And chopping it up into two sentences does nothing to improve its flow. 

Although these draw the phrase out, they use the additional length to emphasize the contrast between the parties being thanked. Far from demonstrating the necessity of the Oxford comma, this example shows it provides clarity in list-making at the expense of elegant and effective writing.

You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Mandatory, which is to say mindless, use of the Oxford comma also litters writing with clutter. 

And the straw-man capers about and wishes he had a brain. No one advocates the mindless use of anything. Following a rule is not mindless, provided you understand the purpose of the rule: clarity in lists.

Each needless comma is an excrescence.

Really? An “excrescence”? An outgrowth resulting from a disease or abnormality? What a fancy way of saying “needless things are needless”. Look at you with your polysyllabic Latinates. How ELEGANT.

In the phrase, “Faith, hope and love remain,” appending a comma after “hope” would not clarify anything, but it would waste space and interrupt the flow of a beautiful passage.

How? How does it do that? Is there a premium on space? How is the first comma an unquestionable necessity, but the second one a grotesque extravagance? 

In brief, the Oxford comma is often superfluous and a crutch for bad writing, yet it has many partisans who want to force it on everyone. Why?

Right, because if you fail to use an oxford comma, paramilitary forces will come to your house and execute you for crimes against grammar. 

And note the phrase “often superfluous”. Since “superfluous” means “unnecessary”, it follows that if a thing is often unnecessary, it is occasionally necessary. This is what I like to call the Buried Admission, a trope of Hot Take Writing.

I doubt that many advocates for a mandatory Oxford comma are confused over the parentage of the hypothetical person who expressed gratitude to Batman and Superman.

Which didn’t stop you working it over like a speedbag, but whatever.

Rather, they are irate at grading another what-I-did-this-summer essay that includes something like, “Then I went swimming at the lake with my brothers, Bill and Ted.” The ambiguity (Are Bill and Ted the student’s brothers or additional members of the party?) annoys the teacher reading about the adventure.

So in this instance, an Oxford comma would be useful? The context clues won’t help us? Is that what you just said? 

Many editors, lawyers and corporate types may have similar irritation when dealing with subordinates who cannot write clearly. For them, as for the teacher above, requiring the Oxford comma is a means to establish basic standards for written precision.

Indeed. Things that are basic tend to be required. Because they are basic.

However, mandating the Oxford comma also makes bad writing compulsory. Specific fields, such as legal writing, might find standardization more important than elegance, but they are the exception.

Everything in here is wrong.

First of all, clarity is not bad writing. Clarity is good writing. Ambiguity confuses readers and leads them to stop reading. It doesn’t matter how ELEGANT you are if no one understands what you’re saying.

Secondly, legal writing, business writing, and journalism are not weird subsets of writing separate from the Real Thing. They’re the majority of writing. Far more people value clarity in written communication than prize aesthetics. Not everything is Lit Fic.

It is understandable that those tasked with teaching and editing bad writers want a rule. And rules may help struggling writers avoid egregious mistakes. But unnecessary rules will hamper the development of good writers. Grammatical rules are attempts to approximate the practices of the good writer, but they are insufficient to produce good writing, and their legalistic application may inhibit good writing.

Are you wondering when he’s going to actually define “good writing”? How we can know when we’ve experienced “good writing”? How we can practice it?

Because I know I am.

The debate over the Oxford comma thus recreates, albeit with much lower stakes, an ancient problem of rule-based systems, including law and ethics. It is best to have a wise ruler who can decide each case in accord with justice, but such rulers are rare and cannot be everywhere when they do exist. The law (at best) attempts to articulate an approximation of what is just, but it cannot do so for all particulars and will further require wisdom to interpret and apply in each circumstance.

Thus, even the best system of laws will sometimes dictate unjust outcomes — how much discretion judges should have in such cases is a significant question, as that discretion includes the potential to increase injustice — but the practical alternative to the rule of law is likely worse. Furthermore, the value of the rule of law does not make every proposed law valuable. Some laws do not approximate justice, and enforcing others can do more harm than good.

Good rules good. Bad rules bad.

Which are the bad rules? The ones I say, of course. Because I say so.

These perennial problems of political philosophy cannot be solved as such because human nature cannot be solved. Nor does pondering them resolve the much smaller question of the Oxford comma.

So glad we went on that journey with you then. Sure, it was pretentious bloviating, but at least it had no bearing on the subject under discussion.

However, considering the value and limitations of rules on a grand scale may provide a framework for the current grammatical debate.

Actually, it does help resolve the question! It provides a “framework”! I am blown away by the rule-breaking on display. Those lazy teachers, they tell you to avoid contradicting yourself from one sentence to the other, but what the hell do they know?

Much elegance. Very good writing. Wow.

The standard of good writing is not adherence to grammatical rules. Rather, the good writer is the standard.

The standard of good writing is the good writer. The good writer is the writer who does good writing.

Therefore, good writers will not obey the edicts of self-appointed grammar commissars. Rather, they will strive for “every phrase and sentence that is right” where “every word is at home.” Every comma is too, which means only using them as necessary. 

So with this deathless peroration, we arrive where we started: instead of using a comma for clarity, learn to write more gooder. There is no aesthetic argument for why having a comma appear next to the word “and” is ugly. Such is merely asserted, over and over again, tied up with the word “elegant”, which is beaten like a trick pony to distract us from the paucity of thought.

He doesnt’ even bother claiming that list sentences are boring and you should avoid them. Which I might have been sympathetic to. But even then, the problem with list sentences is their overuse, not their use at all. 

So since he didn’t define his terms, I’ll offer a guideline. A good writer is someone who knows the rules, knows how to use them, and so learns how to transcend them. Knowing what word to use to produce the right impression on the reader is the essence of the art.

And if avoiding ambiguity in lists is an impression you want to make, I recommend and Oxford comma. So does he, he just doesnt’ want to admit it.


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