Homework Help

Any opinions on the loss of the Oxford comma?Often called the serial comma, it's been...

user profile pic

K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted July 29, 2012 at 6:17 AM via web

dislike 1 like
Any opinions on the loss of the Oxford comma?

Often called the serial comma, it's been on its way out and is now officially rejected, even by Oxford itself. No longer is it the thing to do to have that final listing comma: make lists with commas for strings of words, thoughts, ideas, categories and sundries. Any opinions on the fare-thee-well to the Oxford serial comma?

http://www.examiner.com/article/buffalo-books-the-oxford-comma-is-no-more?cid=PROD-redesign-right-next

18 Answers | Add Yours

user profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted July 29, 2012 at 2:30 PM (Answer #2)

dislike 0 like

I am curious to see what the responses are here.  When I teach composition courses, I explain to students that I was taught to use the Oxford comma, that younger generations are often not, but that I expect my students to be consistent, no matter which they choose because, otherwise, they have no intentionality in their use of punctuation and as far as I'm concerned, they could use a salt shaker to sprinkle their commas if they cannot be consistent. 

However, in spite of having a tolerant attitude with my students, I am displeased about this because the loss of this comma interferes with meaning sometimes, as we know from the violent behavior of bears in bars.  My son's girlfriend sent me a cartoon, too graphic, perhaps to provide a link, showing strippers and Bill Clinton and someone else partnered in an awkward way because of the loss of that comma. 

What is wonderful about the English language is that there is no Acadamie Francaise.  We have plenty of word police, but no central authority or enforcement powers.  My own plan is to not make any changes at all. 

user profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 29, 2012 at 2:48 PM (Answer #3)

dislike 0 like

I, also, was taught to use the Oxford comma. I struggle with the lack of its use today. I feel as though the loss of it speaks to the laziness of writers (harsh, perhaps). I can only assume what is next--accepting "u" or "i" as appropriate. 

I guess the only silver lining I can see will come from the students who desire to elevate their writing and adhere to the historical requirements to writing. Perhaps it is my desire to keep around the "classics," but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed by the drop of the comma.

user profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 29, 2012 at 8:50 PM (Answer #4)

dislike 0 like

As were other posters, I too was taught to use the Oxford comma and not happy to see its demise. Still, languages by their very nature change from time to time, both in spelling, pronunciation, and sadly puctuation. I also lament the slow passing of cursive writing, which also appears to be on its way out. Many of my students can't read it, let alone use it. Change is inevitable; yet we human beings are resistant to it. A sad paradox.

user profile pic

litteacher8 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 29, 2012 at 8:58 PM (Answer #5)

dislike 0 like
I always liked the comma because it seemed consistent. However, I also consider it redundant. If you have the conjunction, it does not really seem that you need the comma. In teaching, I have found that different grammar books teach it different ways. This was confusing for kids and teachers alike.
user profile pic

mwalter822 | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted July 30, 2012 at 2:41 AM (Answer #6)

dislike 0 like

I just tell my students they don't need to use it unless it is necessary to ensure clear meaning. I don't see any problem with dropping it where it is not needed--why would we insist on anything at all that does not contribute to clarity?

user profile pic

e-martin | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 30, 2012 at 1:44 PM (Answer #7)

dislike 0 like

Sometimes I think that leaving out the Oxford comma can help to graphically demonstrate the unity of a series, which is nice. I do run into situations however where that comma is necessary to separate unlike items in a series or, more simply, needed for clarity.

So I guess I'm on the fence on this one. Sometimes I like to have the option of leaving the Oxford comma out. Sometimes I like to have the option of putting it in. 

user profile pic

Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 30, 2012 at 3:50 PM (Answer #8)

dislike 0 like

I am pro-Oxford comma and will continue to teach my students to use it.  I think it just makes the writing more crisp, defined, and consistent.  Have any of you read or seen the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves?  It has some great (and funny!) examples of exactly what we are discussing.

Kristen Lentz

user profile pic

pacorz | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted July 30, 2012 at 9:11 PM (Answer #9)

dislike 0 like

I rather like the Oxford comma. I was taught that the purpose of punctuation is to help clarify and dictate the pace of the wording, and it seems to me that the Oxford comma is useful in that it indicates the slight pause that is demanded for proper understanding when one is reading a list out loud. Omitting it makes the last two items in the list seem linked and set apart from the rest of the list. I will continue to use it -not because an old war horse can't learn new tricks. but because the new trick in this case is not as good as the old way.

user profile pic

stolperia | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 30, 2012 at 9:34 PM (Answer #10)

dislike 0 like

I agree with those who plan to continue using the comma when it is needed to clarify the content of the context in which the list has been presented and won't use it when it isn't needed. In terms of consistency, yes - it is reasonable to have the comma after every item except for the last one in the list, which is usually followed by a period or other type of punctuation. However, I understand the argument of those who feel it is unnecessary to have a comma between the penultimate object in the list and the conjunction before the final item.

user profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:55 PM (Answer #11)

dislike 0 like

Whenever erosions of the language like this with the Oxford comma occur, I am reminded of George Orwell's essay on the English language in which he remarks that language does not reflect culture, "language is culture." The laxity with which people write and speech is deplorable, only exceeded by behaviors and weak thinking.  In more years English may well become Orwell's Newspeak since, to use a phrase we teachers here, "Well, you know what I mean, anyway."

Frankly, I am perplexed why it is considered beneficial that English has no Academie that maintains standards for the language.  English could use such an organization as well as having been established as the National Language centuries ago.

user profile pic

K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted July 31, 2012 at 4:58 PM (Answer #12)

dislike 0 like

Whenever erosions of the language like this with the Oxford comma occur, I am reminded of George Orwell's essay on the English language in which he remarks that language does not reflect culture, "language is culture." The laxity with which people write and speech is deplorable, only exceeded by behaviors and weak thinking.  In more years English may well become Orwell's Newspeak since, to use a phrase we teachers here, "Well, you know what I mean, anyway."

Frankly, I am perplexed why it is considered beneficial that English has no Academie that maintains standards for the language.  English could use such an organization as well as having been established as the National Language centuries ago.

Hi mwestwood!!

Now isn't this interesting: "Whenever erosions of the language like this with the Oxford comma ...." British English grammarians might rather say "Whenever American English users finally reinstate proper English usage ...."

Though it is the Oxford comma, the staunch and continued contemporary use of it is a feature of American English (I think it is safe to say "only" though I have not done a survey of all the varieties of British English around the world). British English has and American publishers have (a good many though perhaps not all) dropped it for ever so long now.

One of my favorite online punctuation experts, Larry Trask, associated with University of Sussex, UK, has this to say about "the listing comma":

The Listing Comma
The listing comma is used as a kind of substitute for the word and, or sometimes for or. ...  Note also that it is not usual in British usage to put a listing comma before the word and or or itself (though American usage regularly puts one there). So, in British usage, it is not usual to write

    The Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

This is reasonable, since the listing comma is a substitute for the word and, not an addition to it.

Although, contributing to the argument for clarity, Trask does concur with the need for a final "comma and" when clarity is clearly at stake:

However, you should put a comma in this position if doing so would make your meaning clearer:

    My favourite opera composers are Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Here the comma before and shows clearly that Gilbert and Sullivan worked together. If you omit the comma, the result might be confusing ... The extra comma removes the problem.

The sticky wicket here might be: Will the British and Americans agree upon what listing situations clearly require the end listing comma? Thanks to good ol' Webster, one has one's doubts.

I say, wave fare thee well to the listing / serial / Oxford comma except as demarcated by Trask. Which rule also solves the "consistency" question: May I use the Oxford comma in this list while having not used it in all the foregoing lists? Answer: Yep!

http://www.informatics.sussex.ac.uk/department/docs/punctuation/node10.html#SECTION00041000000000000000

Thanks everyone for the fun thread!

user profile pic

Jessica Gardner | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:15 PM (Answer #13)

dislike 0 like

kplhardison, you're right; the Oxford comma has long been dropped from British English standards. I actually grew up studying in the British school system, and I had never seen the Oxford comma until transferring over to American schooling. At first, it seemed totally unnecessary to me--as litteacher8 said, why use punctuation in addition to the conjunction? However, I adopted it rather quickly when I realized how much clearer it makes a lot of lists. (It's probably the only American English language custom I've adopted over the years!)

I mean, just look at how it changes these two sentences. The first with the serial comma:

For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I'd like to thank my parents, Sinead O'Connor, and the pope. 

And the second without:

For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I'd like to thank my parents, Sinead O'Connor and the pope. 

But just to take off my usageate cap for a minute and play Devil's advocate, I have to note that the dissolution of the Oxford comma is what gives us the comedic effect of sentences like this and books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves

While I don't think it's necessary all the time, where it's needed for clarity I think it would be a shame to see the Oxford comma disappear. Then again, as long as people who practice good grammar continue to use it and teach it, it doesn't have to go away. We can't pretend that just because stricter rules were taught previously means that everyone used to have impeccable grammar. That will never be the case, but grammarians will in the same way never cease to be either.

Jessica Gardner

user profile pic

frizzyperm | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:40 PM (Answer #14)

dislike 0 like

Interestingly, the Oxford comma is defined in Swan's Practical English Usage as an American English varietal. I have certainly never used it and it looks 'wrong' to me. Sadly, although I would have loved to, I never went up to Oxford. My grades were too base, unrefined, wretched and unworthy for such a place. I wonder why it is called the Oxford comma? I've never heard of it until today.

To be honest, I regret the demise of the Oxford English accent more than the Oxford comma. The beautifully ornate Oxford accent, once so beloved by the dons and their students, alas, is sadly doomed to imminent extinction.

 

user profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 7, 2012 at 2:35 AM (Answer #15)

dislike 0 like

I may not understand the Oxford comma completely—I also have never heard of it. I learned about commas from the grammar "bible" we all used in high school and after, that in a list, the comma was optional when listing three things:

I went to the movies, the mall and Starbucks.

But I learned that with four or more listed things, the comma was required after the "and"...

I love ice cream with cherries, peanuts, coconut, and hot fudge.

I feel very much like an antique because trying to teach this in the classroom was nearly impossible...along with The Scarlet Letter. Times and students change: do we beat our heads against the wall? Or "modify and adjust?"

user profile pic

wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:31 PM (Answer #16)

dislike 0 like

There are many times when the Oxford comma clarifies an utterance:"I went to the store and bought salt, mayonnaise, bread,and butter." Now look at this: "At the picnic we ate salad, potato chips, sandwiches made of bread and butter, and ice cream."  Anyway, the only rule should be consistency.

user profile pic

wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:36 PM (Answer #17)

dislike 0 like

"Erosion" is a rhetorical word with negative connotation.  Language doesn't erode (my metaphor is drawn from farming); it alters; it changes; it grows, it develops.

user profile pic

pokepal101 | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted September 15, 2012 at 7:59 AM (Answer #18)

dislike 0 like

What? The Oxford comma's been rejected? No! Now how will I resolve the ambiguity and/or awkwardness that my sentences will no doubt be plagued with?

user profile pic

markchambers1966 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

Posted September 23, 2012 at 11:32 PM (Answer #19)

dislike 0 like
The Oxford comma has never really been used much in the UK where I am, even if it has the Oxford tag! Correct me if I am wrong, but is it not still a part of the Chicago style of referencing? I think it can help remove ambiguity but really is not required at the end of the list because the 'and'indicates the list is at an end. I can't mourn the passing of something I never used and as a some time English teacher never taught. I would say language and grammar for that matter often changes naturally over time and in this case I feel few will notice its passing.

Join to answer this question

Join a community of thousands of dedicated teachers and students.

Join eNotes