How the Oxford Comma is Rotting Your Brain

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and again the Oxford Comma discussion pops up in my Twitter feed.

And every now and again, I admit to having no love for the optional serial comma that precedes the word “and” in a list of three or more objects. This promptly outs me to the rest of the writing world as some sort of heathen alien impostor bent on tearing apart the very fabric of reality with confusing serial lists that defy logic, like some sort of evil nega-android who can melt human brains through confusion.

body snatchers

There’s even an entire cute Buzzfeed article from earlier this year that makes the case for the Oxford comma, outlining comma-less sentences that accidentally describe ludicrous situations. Some examples: World leaders remove their clothing for money; Nelson Mandela is accused of being a sort of ancient, dildo-enthusiast Gozer-like creature; and authors appear to have conversations with an array of tasty breakfast food items.

The article hits all the usual arguments in favor of the Oxford comma with a series of hilarious images that frequently get circulated around the Internet. Look at all these goofy and unfortunate hijinks, conveniently depicted in cartoon form, that could have been avoided, if only the author had used one additional character to clarify their serial list! Best we all make use of such a punctuation mark, lest we fall into the trap of woeful misunderstanding that could cost us friends, jobs or dates.

But the Oxford comma is not some sort of Messiah-mark here to save you from bad writing. Here’s a leaping facehugger of truth for the bumbling astronaut that is your writer-brain: the Oxford comma makes you a worse writer.

We’ll pause here a minute as you lash out in a rage around the room at the very thought. Try not to break your computer.

Similarly, if you’re just skimming this in order to go to social media and call me a fool and a blasphemer, feel free to depart this post here. The rest is just, you know, reasoning and logic to back up my point, about which you’ve already made up your mind.

I assume those of you who are left are snickering your skepticism and readying your snarktweets. But before you hit those send buttons, let’s consider some of these “examples” of how important the Oxford comma is.

I like this one in particular, from artist Anne Ferguson:

oxford-comma-strippers-jfk-stalin

Let’s do some deconstruction, shall we? “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Okay, makes sense. Three things. Got it.

Then this: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Which of course, creates the following reaction: OH DEAR CHRIST THE STRIPPERS ARE JFK AND STALIN EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT THE WORLD IS WRONG THEY PROBABLY HAVE A STRIPPER BASE ON THE FAKE MOON FROM THE FAKE MOON LANDING AND OSWALD WAS FRAMED WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN WHOSE MINDS WILL BE TWISTED BY STRIPPER JFK WHO I DEMAND TO KNOW–, etc.

As we all know, clarity is important.

Actually, though, both the above examples are just badly written sentences and you should be ashamed you didn’t think so from the start.

Shame, writer. Shame.

shame gif

SHAME.

“We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” is not particularly clear; your brain is doing the work of making sense of the writer’s laziness. The sentence discusses three things, one of which is a group identified by a common noun, while the other two are named people of some importance to the writer. Because they get actual names. When we’re talking about lists, it’s just not a very well-built parallel construction.

People botch parallel construction all the time, in fact, and it hurts the clarity of their writing. There’s a particular ad on my local NPR station that talks about how a group is doing something like “supporting teachers locally, education regionally, and pioneering new techniques nationally,” and that’s just a crappy sentence, Oxford comma or no. You don’t need a comma, you need an “and.”

Behold: “supporting teachers locally and education regionally, and pioneering new techniques nationally.” Look at how beautifully that sentence conveys its ideas and how elegantly the construction of the two clauses creates a kind of symmetry. It’s just… I can’t.

Grammar is wonderful, everyone.

(Also don’t end clauses with adverbs, as it’s about as comfortable to read as having a conversation on a packed subway train with someone standing too close and who can’t control their drooling.)

Back to England’s ridiculous comma and the Great JFK and Stalin Stripper Conundrum. What if: you just rewrite the sentence to be less freaking stupid.

Behold again: “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.”

Whoa. Mind blown.

No, really, though, that’s a more effective sentence in general, relegating the non-specific group of strippers to the end of the sentence and pulling the proper nouns to the front, because they’re more important, since they have names. It also places the two similar things together and the non-similar thing apart from them, making the sentence easier to understand for the reader. Because you write for people to understand you, remember?

In fact, a better sentence might be something like “We invited JFK and Stalin, and the strippers,” or “as well as the strippers.” Getting a little lengthy now, though, and I’d even advocate for splitting the sentence up into two with more information. Whatever, though, we’re not writing a novel about JFK and Stalin’s stripper adventures.

Most of the time, using the “common noun, proper noun, and proper noun” example is a fallacy. If you can reasonably confuse one of the objects in your serial list as being a descriptor for the others, don’t blame the comma, blame your crappy writing. It’s easy to fix in every case and doesn’t require you selling your soul to some comma arbiter.

oxford clown writing

In fact, there are very few examples of Oxford comma gaffes that couldn’t have been solved in the editing process if someone were just to REREAD THE GODDAMN SENTENCE, HOLY SHIT. Like how do you not read the above news update, as an editor, and go, “Whoa, wait.” Journalists have no excuse — AP Style throws away the Oxford comma, presumably to save on characters from the antiquated days of newspaper printing, but you know what, it’s the right call. No Oxford comma means you have to use your head and write better sentences.

We might be aiming at an eighth-grade reading level, but by god, those eighth graders are going to understand whether Obama and Castro are getting married.

Most of the time, when you’re presenting an example advocating for the Oxford comma, you’re really presenting an example of how you should have reordered your list. If you write “Top stories: Same-sex marriage date set, World Leaders at Mandela tribute and Obama-Castro handshake,” suddenly your list of headlines is just a list of headlines. And all you had to do was think about what you were writing — engage your brain instead of stabbing at the comma key all zombie-like.

Here’s another great example in the pantheon of pro-Oxford arguments:

i had toast and orange juice

Okay first of all, who talks like this? Nobody. Nobody goes, “I’m punching alien plants who mimic human beings, Jason and Annie.” That’s like relaying a quote and then saying “said Jane” at the end — it works in a book, maybe (“These aliens are easily dispatched with a shot of Roundup,” said Jane), but it’s not how people think and speak. You might do that with one person (“They take over your body when you sleep, Jason!”) but with two or more, it sounds weird and unnatural.

Furthermore, who the hell do you think is reading your random breakfast sentence as if you were talking to the food? Are there quotes around the sentence? Is this dialogue? Who would even read this sentence this way? The answer is: children. Children read sentences this way. red herringThis isn’t even a real argument, it’s a red herring. You’re inventing scenarios that don’t exist to prop up your bullshit false comma idol. If anything, we should be asking how our public schools are failing their students so badly that they think this is a way to read and interpret this sentence. Maybe all our love for Seussian wordplay has been misplaced. The idiocracy arrives astride a fox in socks!

The fact is that arguments in favor of the Oxford comma are trumped-up charges, attempts to inflate the importance of the post-and serial comma for the sake of the egos of those using it. You’re afraid to abandon the Oxford comma. You’ve got an easy, unchallenging way of making serial lists. Sure, they’re kinda crappy, but they’re simple, and who cares if the method was dictated to you by shadowy, Illuminati-like figures known only as “Oxford.” What does Oxford get out of you using the comma?

One word: control.

The Oxford comma lets you write lazy, unclear sentences. It lets you take shortcuts. It doesn’t challenge you. You don’t engage your brain, and your brain gets a bit soft, and your writing gets even lazier. Soon you’re barely communicating ideas. Your brain turns to mush. So does everyone else’s. And then Oxford controls the world.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: According to the unknown, faceless shadow government that dictates English to the masses, such as those tyrants Merriam and Webster, “literally” now means both “literally” and “figuratively.” Because whatever, write what you want, use the shortcut. Take it easy. Relax. You don’t need to think.

Do you honestly think this is a coincidence?

Stop fighting Oxford’s war of control for them. Abandon the Oxford comma. Free your mind. Write better sentences.

Fight against the comma zealots, bad parallel constructions and stop the slander of world leaders and breakfast food everywhere. April 1 is the day we stand against the thought-control of the Grammar Illuminati.

(By the way, Nick Hurwitch and I will be signing “The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory” at Wondercon this weekend in Anaheim, Calif. Find us at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mysterious Galaxy booth, No. 908!)

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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