Cambridge to Oxford: “Got Commas?”
Oh, the Oxford comma…it is simple, seemingly insignificant, and yet it holds the singular power of either making or breaking your sentence. Think about it: it’s one miserable little keystroke which if used properly can avoid confusion, and if neglected can encourage grammatical anarchy.
Consider, for a moment, the following word series:
“We invited the strippers, J.F.K., and Stalin.”
The above word series would suggest a party (and an unusual one at that), whose primary attendees are exotic entertainers, the leader of the free world, and one of the past century’s most notorious dictators.
Now consider the following similar word series:
“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”
This sentence, even though it contains precisely the same wording, and yet because of the omission of the single final comma, the painting we manufacture in our minds is entirely different. The new party we envision centers around two invitees: two individuals dressed as John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin taking their clothes off and providing free lap dances. Picture that. Don’t like it? Good.
The above comparison was used in the curriculum of a teacher from Dallas, Texas, at whom hundreds of parents and politicians have aimed their ire for his pernicious ploy at pedagogy.
I think that they’re all dead wrong.
The real scandal here isn’t the suggestion that there may be strippers who bear striking resemblances to Kennedy and Stalin–in 21st century America, the likelihood is quite real. The real scandal is that because of one’s careless overlooking of a single grammatical fail-safe, one might accidentally tarnish the sacrosanct memory of America’s slain commander-in-chief while laughing in the face of the millions of innocents who died in Soviet gulags.
It is my view that the Oxford comma is to proper English grammar what Listerine is to proper dental hygiene. Brushing one’s teeth is a normal part (or at least we would hope it to be a normal part) of any person’s morning and evening rituals; a quick cleanse with mouth wash is not always as automatic an action as brushing teeth. Does that make it unimportant? No. Although Listerine is not as widely used, it always makes life more pleasant for those around us.
Does everyone use the Oxford comma? The answer again, unfortunately, is no. Should everyone use the Oxford comma in their written work? It certainly wouldn’t hurt. As a matter of fact, making that one extra keystroke can only improve the quality of one’s work and improve one’s mastery of English composition. So next time you are faced with the choice between using that final comma or omitting it, do us all a favor. Take the extra tenth of a second, hit the comma key one last time, and carry on with your work. I promise it’s worth it.