Literacy Shorts: Oxford Commas

The Oxford comma, also known as the Harvard comma or the serial comma, is the name given to the stylistic comma that precedes the final word or phrase in a list before ‘and’ or ‘or’.  For example:

Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Hulk are members of the Avengers.

HulkHere, the Oxford comma highlights that Hulk, despite being the last listed member of the Avengers, does in fact have the same status as his fellow superheroes because he is connected to each of them and the group as a whole in exactly the same way.  If we remove the Oxford comma, this sense of parallelism is reduced.   This reduction, however, is arguably only negligible, which is why, stylistically speaking, you might be so bold as to say that its inclusion in the first place is an unnecessary indulgence.

So, with this in mind, we must surely ask the awkward question: do we really need the Oxford comma?  American rock band Vampire Weekend would argue not, but perhaps consider the two examples below before you pass judgement.   Here’s the first, from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens:

She seemed much older than I, of course, being a girl, and beautiful and self-possessed; and she was as scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen.

Great Expectations Charles DickensIn the quote above, the young narrator Pip gives us his first impressions of Estella Havisham.  He has been taken over to the decaying mansion where she lives, called Satis House, so that he can play with her.  Pip, a poor orphan, looked after by his sister and her blacksmith husband, immediately feels an unsettling sense of his own inferiority.  He notes that Estella is beautiful, but scornful – and it’s her scorn that he dwells upon.  The Oxford comma amplifies Estella’s disdain for Pip by making the division between her perceived maturity and haughty disposition clear: we are encouraged to consider each characteristic on its own merit.  Estella behaves as if she is twenty-one and a queen, and not simply a twenty-one year old queen.  It’s a subtle distinction, but I’d argue that it’s an important one nonetheless.

Here’s the second example, this time from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson:

Right in the middle there lay the body of a man sorely contorted and still twitching.  They drew near on tiptoe, turned it on its back, and beheld the face of Edward Hyde.

Jekyll and HydeIn the novel, the outwardly respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll is able to metamorphose into the depraved and disinhibited Edward Hyde by consuming a specially concocted potion.  Hyde is a thoroughly despicable individual: he is ruled by the basest, most primitive of instincts; he embodies the very worst aspects of humanity.  He is, in short, a proper rotter.  In the quote above, Jekyll’s butler, Poole, and his good friend, a lawyer named Utterson, have broken into his laboratory.  However, upon entry, they are confronted with a most disturbing and unexpected sight: the grotesque, emaciated body of a man who isn’t their dear friend Jekyll.  They are unable, initially at least, to identify the mysterious figure.  Their momentary confusion, leading all the way up to the final recognition of Hyde’s grotesque face, is intensified by the segmentation and following pause generated by the Oxford comma at the end of the sentence.  Dramatic stuff.

More next week…  In the meantime though, why not click on the links below?  The first one will take you to an article all about the origins of the Oxford comma; the second will take you to a general information page about commas.

TL;DR: The Oxford comma is the stylistic comma that precedes the final word or phrase in a list.