In defense of the Oxford comma
On Feb. 13, a blasphemous manifesto against the Oxford comma was published in The Tartan. I am here to set the record straight. Traitor to grammar, Eshaan Joshi wrote that the Oxford comma is “unnecessary half the time, and for most of the other half, we’re smart enough to figure out we don’t need it.” But, this has nothing to do with intelligence! Rather, it is about consistency.
Joshi explained that standardization is useless in English — which he argues has very little standardization. I have to disagree with this. Just because a language isn’t standardized does not mean that individually we don’t have our own rules. Most people at least seem to develop their own style of writing with personal guides they have chosen to follow. This means that, individually, we have standards. The Oxford comma, as a rule, is useful here because if you believe in it you will ALWAYS use it. What Joshi argues for, inadvertently, is a world of misunderstandings. He writes that “We can decipher when we need to use the comma, versus when the reader can figure out that the list is not self descriptive.” However, that is unrealistic on an individual level. When writing, people should be able to feel confident that their readers will understand them. But when we assume that our writing is understandable without taking all readers into account, it becomes difficult for our audience who now must treat our writing like a puzzle.
Another important aspect of the Oxford comma that Joshi ignores is its ability to work within other grammatical tools. Joshi speaks about how the Oxford comma can be confusing when listing proper nouns next to improper nouns. He uses this list as an example: "I met the landlady, the pastor, Mr. John, and Ms. Doe." He argues that readers will be confused as to whether "Mr. John" is an appositive phrase or separate person. However, he ignores several grammatical tools here. The first, is that when you are writing a sentence like this, you can use other grammatical symbols to differentiate between the list and an appositive phrase. Joshi’s example could be revised to say, “I met the landlady, the pastor (Mr. John), and Ms. Doe”; or “I met the landlady, the pastor — Mr. John, and Ms. Doe”; or “I met the pastor, Ms. Doe, the landlady, and Mr. John.” All of these phrases clarify Joshi’s confusion AND include the Oxford comma. There are ways to be consistent with the use of the comma, but — like in all writing — the sentence should be clear.
The Oxford comma cannot fix poor writing, but it is a widely useful clarifying tool. The problem is that it is not standardized and readers are made to guess what the author is saying. Joshi ends his article by joking “The Author is begging his friends, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to help him pay for college.” The issue is THAT IS CONFUSING. Most readers do not know Joshi personally, and it is NOT obvious that Bezos and Musk are not his friends. He is also using an outlandish example to prove his point. If he had written: “The Author is begging his friends, Farnam Jahanian and Cole Skuse to help him pay for college.” That would be even more confusing. Why not just cut to the chase and make it easy for your readers? Just write: “The Author is begging his friends, Farnam Jahanian and Cole Skuse, to help him pay for college” OR “The Author is begging his friends, Farnam Jahanian, and Cole Skuse to help him pay for college.” These statements are so much clearer just by utilizing commas!
I get what Joshi is saying, but writing is a tool for communicating. It is always better to make your writing accessible to a wider audience. Using grammatical tools like the Oxford comma, clarify exactly what is being said. It also provides comfort to the writer because they are being consistent about its use rather than picking willy-nilly when it is most necessary. Make things easy, use the Oxford comma.