As an English major, I can honestly say that I give far too many fucks about grammar. The fastest way to screw up my day is to suddenly confront me with a misused “your,” a misplaced apostrophe or, god forbid, a fucking comma splice. As that last sentence demonstrates, however, I do not give a single fuck about Oxford commas. In fact, I actively dislike Oxford commas. They’re snobby and annoying and they can get right the hell off my lawn. Here’s why.
First, a brief description. The Oxford comma, or “serial comma,” is the comma that goes before the “and” in a list of items. For example, this sentence does not contain an Oxford comma:
I like toast, green eggs and ham.
This one does:
I like toast, green eggs, and ham.
It’s the little fucker after “eggs,” jamming up the sentence and making you stutter in your head.
Like most grammatical throw-downs, the argument surrounding the Oxford comma is incredibly prescriptivist, with most grammar snobs coming down on the side of using it, despite the fact that there exists no hard-and-fast rule about it. Most grammar manuals list it as optional, leaving it entirely up to the personal preference of the writer. And yet the proponents of the serial comma love to pretend like it’s an absolute necessity, and they make that argument with cutesy illustrations like this: …you can laugh. It’s okay. This is a funny example and in this case, yes, an Oxford comma helps. It prevents deliberate misunderstanding of the sentence’s intention, whereas without the comma you could conceivably (though probably still wouldn’t) picture the second illustration. Also, ha ha, well done, you worked a stripper joke into a grammar conversation. Such wit. Much wow.
But here’s the thing: these ambiguities only occur in very rare instances, and if the more comedic version were in fact the case, we have better ways to write it. For example, if I intended to describe JFK and Stalin being strippers, I could say, “we invited JFK and Stalin, the strippers.” Or I could use a colon: “we invited the strippers: JFK and Stalin.” And if I want to make sure people know that JFK and Stalin are definitely not the strippers, I can say, “we invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.” Even in this specifically tailored instance, the Oxford comma is not the only or even the best solution for this ambiguity.
It is, however, the most awkward one. Read those two example sentences again, out loud. The one with the Oxford comma feels weird, doesn’t it? You can’t avoid pausing at the extra comma, but the sentence keeps going around the pause, so you end up feeling like you’ve just stuttered. It’s weird and uncomfortable to have a comma there.
What’s worse, though, is people taking the idea of an Oxford comma too far. They see the ridicule against those who don’t use it and think, “I’ll never make that mistake. I’m going to use an Oxford comma before all of my conjunctions!” And then they write stupid fucking shit like this:
I went to the store, and shopped.
How uncomfortable is that sentence? READ THAT SENTENCE ALOUD AND TELL ME IT DOESN’T MAKE YOU ANGRY. (For the record, that example does not contain an Oxford comma. It contains a comma-shaped blight on humanity.)
So, to re-cap: the rules say Oxford commas are optional. Sometimes they are helpful. Usually they are stupid.
“The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it.” -Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (an excellent guide to punctuation)