On the Oxford comma

11 March 2016

Over the past few years, I’ve become skilled at saying controversial things on the internet, so I think finally ready to say probably the most controversial thing I’ve ever said: not only do I disagree with the use of the Oxford comma, I actively dislike it.

Those of you not horrified beyond the capacity for further thought are invited to continue to find out why.

I’ll be honest: it’s not the Oxford comma itself I object to, really. I believe it’s unnecessary, but I don’t tend to get that riled up over unnecessary grammar on a regular basis. I mean, every once in a while I do. But I like to play with grammar myself, and I’m content to let certain things go without censure. But the Oxford comma has acquired for itself a following of dramatic proportions and intense righteousness, and I have to say that it’s time it was checked.

I do understand where the furor came from. I like words and grammar more so than even the average person, and I’m passionate about their use. I also like seeing people excited about grammar, and how we can better employ it to share ideas and information with each other. It’s great! Grammar is great! Communicating with people is great! Let’s make it all better!

But here’s the thing. The current cult of popularity of the Oxford comma is ridiculous. It pushes unthinking pedantry over sophistication of thought and comprehension. Instead of a mark of passion for communication, the Oxford comma is now a symbol of insufferable superiority and a way to make fun of things that seem absurd when read only superficially. It’s a game of putting down others who don’t know to follow this arbitrary rule instead of encouraging deeper thinking and learning for everyone.

We’re not stupid. We don’t need punctuation to treat us as if we are, and we certainly don’t need an internet enforcement squad doing the same. If we want to express our love for and value attached to excellence in communication, let’s do it by teaching appreciation for context and aptitude for complex understanding. Don’t point and laugh at whatever and whomever doesn’t meet a blind dictatorial standard. Trust your fellow communicators. Lift them up instead of selling them short.

We don’t need the Oxford comma for the reasons we think we do, and that means maybe we don’t need it at all. But, for certain, we don’t need another snobbish barrier to being taken seriously in our world. Use the punctuation you will, or don’t. As long as we care more about the substance than the form, we’re making a better community and a better way to communicate. Just don’t lose sight of the message among the punctuation, or, most importantly, the person getting it.

Exclamation points, however, I will continue to use with abandon and to absolute excess. Deal with it.


See all essays