Friday, August 19, 2022

We don't need no Oxford commas

Should there be a comma after Y in the phrase "X, Y and Z"?

A lot of people say there should - it's called the Oxford comma - but they're wrong. In most cases there's no need for a comma there.

Fans of the Oxford comma are fond of coming up with examples where you do need a comma after Y:

My heroes are my grandparents, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Yes, you do need one after Batman there to make it clear you don't come from a family of superheroes.

But this morning I came across an example where adding an Oxford comma had made the sentence confusing:

Steve Rotherham, the former Labour Leader of Leeds, and the former Chief Executive of Manchester are to take over control of Liverpool City Council from Liverpool Labour councillors.

When I read that I thought "I didn't know Steve Rotherham was from Leeds, I thought he was from Liverpool."

But he isn't from Leeds: this sentence is about three people. 

The comma after Leeds makes it read as though "the former Labour Leader of Leeds" is a subclause describing Steve Rotherham. Take that comma out and you read the sentence correctly first time.

Most questions about grammar and punctuation aren't a matter of right and wrong so much as of good style.

I find Oxford commas pernickety and prefer to do without them wherever possible.

And if a poor little comma is doing all the work of saving a sentence from nonsense, maybe you need to rewrite that sentence so it's clearer?


Dan said...


SJ said...

My view is mostly from having to do close readings of many texts and my conclusion is that a writer really ought to be consistent in their own writing. The idea that one might use a serial comma in some instances but not others is thus one I couldn’t get along with. In my own writing I would say that if one is including a sub-clause when writing a list of items then those items shouldn’t be separated by a comma at all but by a semi-colon (as is normal for lists of longer strings of words) and that the serial comma is not to blame for this confusion at all!

Personally I don’t like the name Oxford Comma either. As I understand it OUP adopted the comma but didn’t invent it and it’s association with them is purely for appearance’s sake (good or bad)