Now Reading: On the Oxford Comma: An Essay About Grammar and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (among other things)


On the Oxford Comma: An Essay About Grammar and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (among other things)

September 17, 20177 min read

When do you use it? When do you not use it? Should we forgo it altogether? The Oxford comma has long been a subject of intense debate. In fact, ancient legend has it that the Oxford comma has ruined more relationships and friendships than Monopoly. And so we must ask ourselves and look to the gods (aka characters on How I Met Your Mother) to decide whether or not it even serves a purpose and whether or not it’s grammatically correct.

Though I’m sure many of you are familiar with your punctuation, I’ll give a brief refresher for those who are not. The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) separates the final and penultimate words in a list.

Ex: During her acceptance speech, she thanked her parents, her therapist, and God.

The Oxford comma is the one that separates therapist and God, and without it, the sentence would read as if her parents were both her therapist and God.

However, most stances on the debate surrounding the Oxford comma ultimately depend on what kind of person they are attached to. I recently started watching How I Met Your Mother—and by “started watching” I mean that I’ve binge-watched eight episodes in two nights (yes, I’m pretty proud). From what I understand about the characters so far, I’d like to believe that most people in this world can be separated into two distinct categories: the Teds and the Barneys. A Ted is a worrier and over-thinker, someone who tends to tread lightly. Teds like to have a sense of control in a situation; not because they’re bossy, but because they have a rocky relationship with uncertainty. On the other hand, the Barneys of the world spend less time thinking about the outcomes of their actions and more time living in the moment. The Barneys live a (mostly) carefree life… whatever happens, happens.

And in this contrasted world of Teds and Barneys, I believe that the Teds would (almost certainly) use the Oxford comma and that the Barneys would not. The Teds would appreciate the clarity that the Oxford comma can add to a sentence; if nothing else, it’s a constant in their life. The Oxford comma to a Ted would be what the blanket is to Linus van Pelt: an added sense of security. To the Barneys, however, the Oxford comma is too precise, maybe even a bit fussy. It’s like leaving 30 minutes early for an appointment that’s 10 minutes away, or making plans with someone more than a day or two in advance.

Invariably, there is always an exception. There’s someone who doesn’t fall into the Teds or the Barneys; because this is not a black and white world. Those are the Marshalls. Marshalls don’t dislike the Oxford comma and they hold no contempt for it. They simply just forget to use it. Marshalls wish that they could take a stance on the Oxford comma like their friends, but they’re just disinterested and apathetic when it comes to such debates. Marshalls, like Vampire Weekend, don’t give a f*#! about an Oxford comma.

Throughout elementary school, I (like most kids) was always told to remember the Oxford comma because it brought clarity to what would otherwise be an unclear sentence. Year after year, we would make posters and do projects that checked our comprehension of the Oxford comma: It was a grammar rule that wasn’t to be broken. But in high school, I noticed that the Oxford comma was not the default. I encountered people who were in firm opposition to the Oxford comma, calling it “pedantic,” and I met others who just couldn’t be bothered to care. Some research and essay formats called for it, others did not. I loathed the Associated Press writing style for deeming the Oxford comma redundant, and even remember having a debate with my newspaper advisor about whether or not the Oxford comma was useful.

I do recognize that the Oxford comma does not always resolve ambiguity. Sentences like “I love apples, oranges, and bananas” are already straightforward and do not necessarily need an Oxford comma, but why be inconsistent about comma placement? I understand wanting to be concise, but is avoiding typing that extra comma really worth the possible confusion? If you think it is, my friend, you are definitely a Barney.

However, as a Ted at heart (and a grammar nerd), I love the Oxford comma. To me, lists without the Oxford comma are as incomplete as NSYNC without Justin Timberlake or a Kardashian without cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, in my writing, I am forced to be a Barney. In fact, I spent a good amount of time rewording many of the sentences in this article so that I would never have to compromise my stance and forgo using the Oxford comma.

I really don’t see anything wrong with wanting to have added clarity; just as I don’t see anything wrong with living on the cautious side. The Oxford comma does more help than harm, and I’m sure the Ted Mosby’s of the world can agree that there’s an odd comfort in the familiarity of the of it. It’s your favorite t-shirt that you never wear but can’t bear to part with. It’s your favorite soup on a rainy day. It brings consistency to an otherwise inconsistent world.

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Allison Kirste

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