You Should Be Inconsistent With the Oxford Comma. Don't @ Me.

By Eric Eisenberg, Partner | Brand and Content

June 12, 2021

I may be stepping on a grammar landmine here.

College English majors learn early on that good writing means consistent writing. This golden rule has created factions of writers on both sides of the comma. The Oxford comma side takes it so seriously that they even make t‑shirts. Sure enough, the anti-Oxford comma side does too.

If you asked me 5 years ago which t‑shirt I’d wear, I’d immediately say Oxford. Sentence clarity aside, not having that visual pause seemed to connect the last 2 items in a list unnaturally (the and” alone didn’t cut it for me). But more recently, I’ve noticed myself gravitating toward not adding it in certain instances. Instances where the comma feels like a speed bump in my sentence flow.

It occurred to me that we may not be taking full advantage of the nuances offered by this little punctuation mark.

Think of the comma’s versatile cousin, the em dash. We can use it like a more confident colon — boom, love the emphasis here. Or in place of commas or parentheses — if we want to really pronounce a phrase — to add a little extra visual punch. We’ve given freedom to the em dash. Heck, we’ll even use it 2 different ways within the same paragraph and not get hung up on it.

So why not set the comma free?

Why can’t we use the Oxford comma situationally if it makes each independent sentence, and the overall piece, read better?
#recordscratch #crowdhushes

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Let’s back up a sec and look at the core argument. For purposes of setup, I’ll dedicate this article to several important people in my life:

This article is dedicated to my awesome kids, Professor Millhauser and John Lennon.

This is a fairly classic example of how the pro-Oxford side makes its case. Unless I was John Lennon’s father and had a secret professor-child with a different last name, I’d clearly need to stick a comma in there.

But to this, the anti-Oxfords would note that in order to maintain non-Oxford consistency, I could just write around the issue:

This article is dedicated to Professor Millhauser, John Lennon and my awesome kids.

Totally valid. But what if I want my kids to come first?

I’ve always fallen back on punctuating a sentence the way I’d speak it. As long as the meaning in what I’m trying to communicate is clear, if I inflect even a subtle pause before the final and _____” in a sentence, I’ll add the Oxford.

Here’s another example: I love pizza with spinach, mushrooms, and cheese.

The Oxford comma here makes it painfully clear that the mushrooms and cheese are separate entities, but would anyone really question that in this context? If I spoke this example, I’d flow right through the ingredients, so visually, the Oxford creates a speed bump. These days, I’d ditch it.

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I want to be clear on one point: Consistency as a general writing principle is absolutely necessary for producing a polished product. But like anything, there’s a line where unwavering consistency begins to feels like blind adherence to the convention.

Let’s say I wrote a short article that included both Oxford and non-Oxford uses. As long as the sentences weren’t back to back, and as long as my connotations were clear, this subtle variation would have zero effect on my perceived polish. In fact, I’d bet that nobody would even notice (save maybe the t‑shirt stalwarts).

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Pablo Picasso

So I call for conscious, calculated inconsistency with the Oxford comma. I want to use it when it works better, and leave it out when that works better. I want rigid writing rules to evolve as spoken language does. I want to be free to tell more compelling stories. I want to wear two t‑shirts at the same time. Then rip them both off.

Comments? Feel free to @ me.