Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?

Story highlights

  • A judge recently ruled in favor of Maine truckers because of a missing Oxford comma
  • John McWhorter: Oxford commas ward off ambiguity, but need not be used all the time

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "Words on the Move." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)A recent court case seems like a victory for fans of the grand old Oxford comma. To many, it feels natural to write "Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland." But just as one may feel lazy saying "My brother and me went home" rather than "My brother and I," there is a sense that it is more proper to write "Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland," inserting a comma after the item before the last one.

And people advocating for the Oxford comma have a point now and then. If you were a trucker reading that union rules deny you overtime pay for "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce," would you consider yourself due overtime payment nevertheless for distribution? That is, as opposed to packing things for shipping and distribution?
    John McWhorter
    Truckers for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine have been granted back overtime pay for having distributed product as opposed to packing it, because though the writers of the contract meant that overtime would not be granted for distribution either, this is not clear when there is no comma after shipment. The drivers' lawyer has successfully argued that the contract appears to stipulate that overtime won't be granted for, only, the packing of things for future shipping and distribution.
    But it's premature to read this as demonstrating that everybody should always use the Oxford comma. What happened here shows, just as defensibly, that the Oxford comma should be used in cases of potential ambiguity. The people who wrote the union contract made a mistake, but not in way that means all of us should feel bad about writing "hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries."
    We might feel slovenly, however, for writing "I had toast, bacon and eggs and coffee" where one could argue that it's unclear whether the bacon and eggs went together or eggs and coffee did, or "My parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope," which implies a rather stunning parental history in casting those two people as your parents, as opposed to persons in sequence with your parents.
    I know the objection: Shouldn't we just use the Oxford comma all the time in the same way that we train teenagers to use turn signals at all times even if no other drivers happen to be present? "It's good to just get into the habit," we figure. After all, it means learning just one mechanical gesture to use across the board instead of grappling with the vagaries of judgment calls.
    However, this solution runs up against the simple factor of experience. The idea that the Oxford comma is as advisable as storm windows has been a standard meme among literate Americans since, especially, the publication of William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style in 1959. That's now almost 70 years ago, and yet the matter remains controversial, not to mention counter-intuitive to many.
    Since that time, we have developed a radically new relationship to seatbelts, littering and drunk driving, but writing "Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland" remains comfortable to a great many -- including Vampire Weekend and myself -- regardless of periodical dunnings from those to whom it is a matter of concern.
    This is not a matter of random slobbery. The reason the Oxford comma feels forced so often is because there is already a built-in separation between the final and second element in those phrases: the word "and." The Oxford comma seems, most of the time, redundant and even clumsy. To me, for example, it has always felt like adding an extra separation or pause -- except in cases where that infelicity is worth it to disambiguate, as it certainly was in that truck drivers' union contract.
    Let's not even get into the fact that sometimes the Oxford comma can, itself, make a mess. Try out "To my mother, Mother Teresa, and the Pope." Only the Oxford comma makes it sound like Mother Teresa is your mom.
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    In the grand scheme of things, punctuation is already a historically fluid business, rife with ambiguities that require tutelage and experience to master. Signs advertising "Fresh Fish" rather than Fresh Fish make it clear how easy it is for less educated or immigrant writers to mistake quotation marks as substitutes for underlining -- my favorite example of this was a store in New York advertising that one could Make "A" Salad! Meanwhile, people have conversations of Seinfeldian outrage over the use of the em-dash. And the accepted use of the semicolon is alien to a great many.
    Written conventions are nasty enough and aren't going away. Must we foist yet another one on innocent persons by requiring an unnecessary comma as a universal traffic rule? What, precisely, is the argument against treating the Oxford comma as a tool for clarity?
    Of course, to treat the failure to use the Oxford comma as a mark of mental messiness is a handy way to look down on what will perhaps always be a majority of people attempting to write English. However, the last time I checked, we cherished tamping down our tribalist and elitist tendencies as much as possible, which strikes me as combining generosity, rigor and goodwill. Pardon me, incidentally, if that list of qualities occasioned any ambiguity with its lack of an Oxford comma.