Oxford (Comma) Debate: Is the Serial Comma Really Necessary?

By Dave Pezza and Matt DiVenere

Watching Dave Pezza and Matt DiVenere debate in an email chain is like marveling at a couple of old men try to club each other with their canes. Arms and legs flailing madly, dentures flying out of mouths, and no actual damage done owing to the physical infirmity of the contestants. Enjoy their most recent swashbuckling over the beloved Oxford comma.—Daniel Ford

Dave Pezza: Summation of my argument: I use the Oxford comma, or serial comma, because I am not a neo-fascist, white-privileged stooge of the boys' club known as journalism.

Matt DiVenere: The Oxford comma is for lazy writers who are too drunk to not realize they're rambling on and on. Or they just have a blatant disregard for the reader and are arrogant enough to think the reader will figure it out. Don't be lazy and rewrite your sentence.

Dave: That is inaccurate. The serial comma’s use is recommended by almost every major English style guide and non-journalistic based publishing house in the United States. Those who do not use the serial comma feel as though they belong to a long line of prestigious writers and journalists and have such an uncanny affinity for writing that their syntax never errs on the side of confusion. Therefore, their prose needs not that lowest and most plebeian of punctuation: the serial comma. And that is ironic, because most journalistic publications are written at an eighth- to 12th-grade reading level. And that very same comma would be added to any eighth to 12th graders’ paper.

So please, for the love of writing, stop purporting this high-handed, Machiavellian trope of superior writing and the common man’s inability to follow prose otherwise. It is demeaning, and those who think this way are very much in the minority. But I suppose that makes sense, the small minority pretending that it alone knows what is best for the whole.

Matt: Almost everyone thought the earth was flat.

Almost everyone thinks global warming is a myth.

Almost every time someone defends themselves with "almost everyone," they are wrong.

Almost everyone is never everyone. So why must there be a definitive answer here?

I believe that English professors and authors utilize the Ox because writing consecutively lends more toward description. The Ox makes sense for those long-nosed authors who don't have a fear of heights from looking down it so often at journalists.

But the Ox does not lend itself to the journalistic writing style that I call my own. Therefore, I consider to be a writer's shoehorn. If you're too lazy to put your own shoe on, is wearing shoes your biggest issue? And who owns a shoehorn anymore?

And journalists write to a fifth- to eighth-grade level. So ha!

Dave: We are not arguing about scientific facts that can be proven right or wrong based on research and the scientific method. We are talking about a simple, easy, and straightforward convention used the world over to help readers and writers better understand one another. So when everyone agrees that its use is your best bet, you can believe them.

This isn’t the 1920s. You’re not Ernest Hemingway. The current literary form of the English language is pretty set in stone. Sure, the language changes now and again to conform to contemporary trends, but on the whole we’ve figured it out. So your style isn’t anything new, and its complexities and subtle nuances aren’t so amazing that they preclude the use of a comma at the end of a list. Sorry. It doesn’t. And the people who haven broken the mold, like Hemingway, James, Wallace, and Shakespeare, did so because they were masters of the conventional.

You’re not one of these matters, I’m not, and odds are noone reading this is. Sometimes you have to play by the rules and just suck it up. Be happy that you have to eat it on something as inconsequential to daily life as the serial comma.

Matt: I don't think journalists are trying to say they're better than anyone or even that our way is more right than yours. I'm just saying that you need to be open to other ways of doing things.

So I need to follow 100% the way something was created nearly 100 years ago without questioning it or making any changes? Quite a statement to make. Do you still write on rock with a chisel? And exactly how many years away are you from calling music "noise" and yelling at kids to get off your lawn?

Dave: We are talking about a comma that, when used at the end of a list along with all the other commas in said list, unequivocally avoids confusion between each distinct item. Damn, you really are losing a lot of artistic integrity by following that damn rigorous, old school Oxford comma. Damn those old, white bastards for controlling how your unique 2017 art reads.


And if using the serial comma is 100% following the way we wrote English 100 years ago, then you need to start reading more turn of the century prose, my friend. Change and progress is most importantly about keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t. The serial comma has always worked. It will continue to always work. And not using is akin to a teenage temper tantrum, throwing up that middle finger to the world that just doesn’t understand your art, Kevin! No, we get it. This is how the world works, get over it.

Matt: Let's do a quick sample sentence and let's see how you read it compared to me:

  • A stripper, Dave, and Dan all had fun together last night.
  • A stripper, Dave and Dan all had fun together last night.

To me, the first sentence says that the strippers' name is Dave. The second sentence says the three of them had fun. 

But the Ox is needed every time right? And I'm the asshole because I think if you just change the sentence around, it'll be easier to read and more concise? Your turn.

Dave: If we are following conventional rules, and we are because we use the Oxford comma, “no comma, however, should separate a noun from a restrictive term of identification,” according to Strunk & White. So when I see this sentence:

  • A stripper, Dave, and Dan all had fun together last week.

I know that we are talking about three different people for two reasons: first, the serial comma tells us that there are three people, and, secondly, if Dave were a stripper the sentence would properly read:

  • The stripper Dave and Dan all had fun together last week.

Or one would have properly added the parenthetical commas distinguishing Dave as a stripper with which we might not know:

  • Dave, a stripper, and Dan all had fun together last week.

But there is no way, if you know your grammar, to confuse a sentence written this way:

  • A stripper, Dave, and Dan all had fun together last week.

But a sentence written the following way could, grammar tells us, only have one meaning: ‘a stripper’ is parenthetical information, leading off the sentence that describes Dave, which would make the word ‘all’ very confusing and ill advised:

  • A stripper, Dave and Dan all had fun together last night.

Final Statements

Dave: Kids, if you see someone not using the serial comma, call them out on it. Life too short to be wrong all the time. Be right. Take those bastards down a peg!

Matt: My conclusion is simple, clean and concise. Which is a perfect way to simply explain why the Ox is a waste of time that only leads to angry conversations, name calling and oversimplified history lessons. In the end, aren't we writers facing the same existential crisis? That people today do not care for the written word as they have in the past. Instead, today's readers seek out five-second videos, internet memes and gifs? We need to stand together as one united front in that battle.

P.S. Sean Spicer uses the Oxford comma.

What do you think? Is the Oxford comma necessary? Reply in the comments section below, on our Facebook page, or tweet us @WritersBone.

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