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A Word, Please: An Oxford comma could strip JFK's dignity

March 09, 2013|By June Casagrande

There's a cartoon about commas going around on the Internet.

The first panel reads: “With the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” The illustration shows four people: two men, one bearing a resemblance to JFK and the other to Stalin, and two women in G-strings and high heels.

The second panel reads: “Without the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” above an illustration of just two people: men resembling JKF and Stalin, who themselves are wearing G-strings and high heels.


If you're looking to pick a side in a silly war, you can stop reading now. That's all the ammo you need to join the legions of people who believe that the Oxford comma is king. But if you want a clear picture of why this just isn't so, keep reading.

The Oxford comma, often called the serial comma, is placed before a conjunction such as “and” in a list: “The flag is red, white, and blue.” Not everyone puts a comma here. Most news media don't use the serial comma: “The flag is red, white and blue.”

It's not about right or wrong. It's only about style. Associated Press style, which is followed by many news outlets, says not to use it. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by most book publishers and many magazine publishers, insists that the serial comma prevents confusion.

Does it? Let's look at our cartoon example. In the sentence, “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin,” the absence of an Oxford comma creates the possibility that JFK and Stalin are the strippers. This is due to a grammatical function known as the appositive.

Look at these sentences: I will visit my best friend, Donna, this summer. I saw his new car, a red Prius, parked out front. The CEO, a highly effective manager, will give a talk.

In those examples, “Donna,” “a red Prius” and “a highly effective manager” are all functioning as appositives. An appositive is basically just a noun phrase that restates another noun phrase that came before it. It's a reworded repeat.

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