Style Corner: The Oxford and Other Commas

In a December 2017 edition of Style Corner I denounced the so-called comma splice – the practice of using a comma to separate two full sentences – with the simple advice “don’t do it” (at least in business writing).

Then someone kindly reminded me that in July 2016 I’d written another piece which suggested I was actually quite relaxed about the comma splice.

It was true. I had, and (at the time) was. I’ve now changed my mind, at least so far as business writing is concerned. So in case you’re wondering, I have amended that earlier blog and removed the offending, excessively liberal sentiment.

Then, in another valid challenge, I was reminded that some of the finest lines in English literature are actually comma splices. Dickens was not a bad writer, most would agree. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – not a bad start to a novel!

With both challenges in mind, perhaps the proscription shouldn’t have been quite as definitive as I suggested in my December blog.

This blog goes on to talk about some other realms of comma usage, including the serial (Oxford) comma and other uses.

Not many rules

One of my students expressed surprise when I claimed – slightly for effect, to make a point – that only a few of the so-called rules around comma usage were really strict and grammatical. The comma splice was one, and there were a few more, but in general comma usage depended more on sense, sound and personal preference than on rules.

I think I actually believe this. In other words the statement was not just a product of vain, pretentious iconoclasm.

But it begs questions. What are those few grammatical conditions? And how much can you really trust to sense, sound and preference when making the determination “comma or not”?

Let’s take the first question first. What are the few grammatical conditions?

1. Parenthetical usage

You must use a comma at both ends of a parenthetical clause or phrase (defined as a clause or phrase the removal of which, in its entirety, would still leave a cogent and grammatical sentence).

With a parenthetical clause or phrase you can’t use only one comma, i.e. at one end only. Just as you wouldn’t use only one bracket (parenthesis) if you were using brackets instead of commas.

The President, Donald Trump, tweeted about his golf round. YES

The President Donald Trump, tweeted about his golf round. NO

The President, Donald Trump tweeted about his golf round. NO

2. Subjects, verbs, objects and lists

You shouldn’t use a comma between a subject and a verb, other than in the kind of correct parenthetical usage shown in 1. above.

President Donald Trump, tweeted about his golf round. NO

Similarly you must not use a comma between a verb and its object.

Donald told, the First Lady he had had a good round. NO

But you must use a comma to separate the first n-1 elements in a narrative list of n items.

The President played rounds of golf at Troon, Turnberry and Gleneagles. YES

3. Sense, sound and preference

Other than these few instances I am contending that comma usage relies entirely on sense, sound and preference. So let’s turn to the second question: can we safely place such reliance (on sense, sound and preference)?

With relative clauses

You can use a comma to precede a relative clause depending on sense.

Donald was very critical of the golf course, which he played today (after his summit). YES if this is the intended sense, NO if not

Donald was very critical of the golf course which he played today (but happy with the one he played yesterday). YES if this is the intended sense, NO if not

Donald said the course that he played today was in good shape. YES

Donald said the course, that he played today, was in good shape. NO

If it sounds wrong, don’t use one. That’s the main thing.

Where sense dictates

You can use a comma where sense dictates that you need one.

Trump played a round of golf with the Bishops of Bristol, and Bath and Wells. YES: makes clear to the non-knowledgeable reader that the Bishop is of Bath and Wells not Bristol and Bath

Trump played a round of golf with the Bishops of Bristol and Bath and Wells. NO: unclear

Where sound dictates

You can use a comma where sound dictates that you need one.

In a run-on postal address:

Donald Trump, The White House, Washington DC, USA.

After a long adverbial phrase:

Typically for such a keen golfer, Trump liked Troon.

Where preference dictates

If it conveys your intended sense, and it sounds OK, it is purely a matter of preference.

The President played rounds of golf at Troon, Turnberry and Gleneagles. YES (no comma after Turnberry)

The President played rounds of golf at Troon, Turnberry, and Gleneagles. YES (serial or Oxford comma after Turnberry)

The serial or Oxford comma

At last I managed to get in a mention of the Oxford comma. It’s only taken 800 words and that topic is supposed to be one of the main themes of this blog!

Actually that is the point. The Oxford comma is so far down the list of so-called rules about comma use – is so well into the territory of “preference” – that it only warrants a mention near the very end of this blog, when we are talking about real niceties and nice-to-haves. The fact is you can use an Oxford comma or not, to your heart’s content. You don’t even need to be consistent about it, unless it is mandated by the house style guide you are working to (which you may sometimes find, especially if working with American writers or publishers).

In practice, an Oxford comma sometimes looks good when you have a narrative list that includes some long-ish items; and, especially, if either of the last two items in that list already includes the word “and”.

Donald Trump’s favourite foods were mushrooms on toast, baked beans with a bit of cheese and mustard, and steak and chips. YES, probably

Donald Trump’s favourite foods were mushrooms on toast, baked beans with a bit of cheese and mustard and steak and chips. NO, probably

That last example is ambiguous, and that is where the Oxford comma can often help: resolving ambiguity.

Have a Hart

An excellent source on this topic – far better and more comprehensive than this blog – is New Hart’s Rules, which covers some technical cans of worms and hornet’s nests I did not even dare approach here. Comma usage with direct reported speech, for instance, is a can of worms and a hornet’s nest in one – a can of hornets if you like – and depends partly which side of the Atlantic Ocean you are on, but not only on that.

If you care about that topic, or other comma-related usages not mentioned here, I refer you with relief and respect to the greater authority of Hart.