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Cognition

Why the Oxford Comma Is Unnecessary

Critically thinking about the Oxford comma, punctuation and good writing.

In school, I was taught about conjunctions (e.g. or and and) and the role they play in sentence structure – they are linking words. They do what they say on the tin: con- (i.e. with) and -junction (i.e. join). So, with these learnings in mind, I found it quite strange when I started encountering use of the Oxford comma (OC) in text. Why would you place a comma there? Why are you rendering the purpose of ‘and’ redundant? ‘And’ is present here – there’s no need for a comma!

Commas had been explained to us based on a rather simple rationale: say the sentence out loud and place a comma wherever you feel the need to take a breath. Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Likewise, I recognise what using the OC can achieve. However, after quite a bit of thought, I have come to the conclusion that regardless of what it can potentially achieve, it is unnecessary. Arguably, one could call reliance on its use as lazy.

Before I explain what I mean by both unnecessary and lazy, why the OC is often recommended should first be considered. I generally hear three reasons for why people advocate for the use of the OC: (1) it is the (or will become the new) standard for professional writing; (2) it facilitates a cadence consistent with how it was intended to be read (be it out aloud or sub-vocally); and (3) it both promotes clarity and prevents ambiguity or confusion (e.g. through removing unwarranted or inaccurate association[s] between items in a list).

First, identifying use of the OC as the standard for professional writing is, to a large extent, an unfounded claim. In over ten years of writing and publishing peer-reviewed research papers (as well as a book), I’ve never been advised to write with the OC. Do I see other researchers use it? Yes, many do; but, many also don’t. With respect to it becoming the new standard, well, that’s just pure speculation about what will happen in the future; and regular readers of this blog know that, in terms of critical thinking, speculations about the future are quite tricky, given that none of us are Nostradamus.

Second, it is not the OC that facilitates a cadence consistent with how it was intended to be read; rather, it is the writer that does this. Moreover, as an individual writes, they do so in a manner, sub-vocally, that provides a pleasant cadence to them. That is, they write what they do based on what they think reads well/sounds right; and this is well accomplished without consternation over whether or not to place a comma before the word ‘and’ or not. However, it must also be acknowledged that what sounds good to the writer will not necessarily sound good to everyone else. Of course, this all comes down to writing style; and likewise, use of the OC is also a matter of style.

Finally, I think what gets us to the crux of the problem is the belief that use of the OC somehow promotes clarity and prevents ambiguity or confusion. I’ve seen some examples online, often presented in a humorous fashion, which demonstrate this belief. One of my favourites alludes to an invitation list to what I assume is some kind of strange party:

“We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.”

From this sentence, which includes an OC, it can be inferred that the historic figures JFK and Stalin are invited, as are multiple strippers.

However, using the same structure, if you didn’t use the OC, it would become:

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

This example might be seen to imply that JFK and Stalin are the strippers – which would be inaccurate. Notably, though I think a colon would do a better job here than a comma to imply that JFK and Stalin are the strippers (if that were the intended case), it remains that this sentence is certainly on the ambiguous side!

There’s another funny example out there, but I think it’s used more as a humorous paradox than a critique of one side over another – perhaps suggesting that it doesn’t really matter which style you use:

“There are two types of people: those who use the Oxford comma, those who don’t and those who should.”

In reality, assuming that my interpretation of the last example is correct – that this paradox is suggesting that it doesn’t really matter which style is used, I’d be largely in agreement, given that a lot of it just boils down to style. However, what I do have a problem with is what I referred to above as lazy reliance on the OC. That is, perhaps the issue caused by comma placement (or lack thereof) simply results from poor phrasing – in which case, it has nothing to do with commas and everything to do with a rewrite. Simply, if ambiguity or confusion is yielded from the presentation of writing, then the placement of a single comma (or even its removal) isn’t often going to be the best solution. In a way, it’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a burst pipe.

There are two problems here that require thought when considering whether or not the OC actually facilitates clarity and prevents both ambiguity and confusion. First, ask yourself whether or not the sentence can be rewritten in a way that enhances clarity without having to play around with inserting or removing the OC. If you don’t review to see if the sentence can be restructured to enhance clarity (and subsequently do so), then, I would call that lazy writing; because, it is often the case that the structure of a sentence can be enhanced. The word ‘often’ here is key to the second point, which is that the accuracy of using (or not using) the OC is simply contextual. Consider again the first example regarding the strippers and the historic leaders. The OC worked in that context because there were multiple strippers and multiple historic world leaders – and that’s what bred the ambiguity. If there was only one stripper, using the OC would lead to:

“We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.”

In this context, the use of the OC actually causes the ambiguity and confusion because it makes the sentence potentially imply that Stalin is invited along with a stripper named JFK. Removing the OC actually facilitates clarity in this context. Again, this example is not used to encourage one style’s use or another; rather, helps make the point that the use of the OC isn’t necessary if the sentence is appropriately structured. For example:

“We invited JFK, Stalin and two strippers.”

or

“JFK, Stalin and a stripper were invited.”

Perhaps, much of this problem boils down to the manner in which we were taught about how commas function versus mechanics of good writing – essentially what can be done versus what should be done. For example:

“The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.”

There’s nothing grammatically wrong in this sentence, per se. As generally instructed in school, commas are inserted where a breath is taken. A more refined account of what’s happening is that they are forming a parenthetic expression – in this case, enclosing a caveat to the sentence’s intended point, which is to make a recommendation. The point is, I would look at this sentence and conclude that it might read much better if it was written as:

“Unless you are pressed for time, the best way to see a country is to travel on foot.”

Again, this is stylistic to a large extent; however, I think this example demonstrates how sentences that could potentially elicit confusion can be re-arranged to facilitate comprehension. Similarly, the other, ‘paradox’ example could be restructured in a variety of ways, given that there is actually quite a bit wrong with it. Let’s take a look at it again:

“There are two types of people: those who use the Oxford comma, those who don’t and those who should.”

Obviously, there is no OC inserted – if there was, then it would contradict its own meaning; hence the ‘humour’. But, if we take a closer look, we can see that not only can it be amended to remove the contradiction:

“There are two types of people: those who use the Oxford comma; and those who don’t, but should.”

…but also, the use of a colon and semicolon may allude to the core of my problem with ‘laziness’ associated with over-reliance on the OC – people no longer appropriately use semicolons and, to a lesser extent, colons. Regardless of educational or professional ‘level’, I’ve seen all types of people consistently make mistakes with semicolons (e.g. using them in the place of colons). Semicolons are commonly known to be utilised in cases where two sequential sentences are so related/dependent on one another, that simply treating them as distinct (i.e. as two sentences) fails to convey the point; and so, a semicolon is used as a form of conjunction. See what I did there?

Semicolons can also be used to list things. When I was writing my PhD, I recall needing to list the five applications of critical thinking numerous times: hypothesis testing, verbal reasoning, argument analysis, judging likelihood and uncertainty and problem-solving. Through reading this, you see that such listing is on the ‘clunky’ side, particularly with respect to the last two applications. That’s largely due to the length of the fourth application and the multiple occurrences of ‘and’. Obviously, it doesn’t come across well without restructuring/rewriting. Yes, the OC could be used here; but, I was able to overcome this barrier through using semicolons: hypothesis testing; verbal reasoning; argument analysis; judging likelihood and uncertainty; and problem-solving. If you have a similar example (or maybe even the complete opposite), please let me know! In all honesty, the OC acts quite similarly to the semicolon with respect to listing. My point is, if we were to use semicolons appropriately, then there’s no need for the OC.

So, if we accept that a lot of frustration over the use of the OC is down to people not using semicolons appropriately, then we could actually change the ‘paradox’ example to:

“There are three types of people: those who use the Oxford comma; those who don’t; and those who should.”

This final restructure can be said to conclude that: there are people who use the OC (which is fine [provided they write with clarity], but may imply that they don’t know how to use semicolons appropriately); there are people who don’t use the OC (which is fine, provided they write with clarity and use semicolons appropriately); and people who should use the OC (implying they don’t write with clarity and don’t use semicolons appropriately). With that, if you are writing with clarity and you do use semicolons appropriately, you might find yourself not needing to rely on the OC at all.

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