The serial or so-called ‘Oxford comma’, as you all undoubtedly know, is the comma before the final item in a list of three or more things:

“I fired burning marshmallows at my uncle, a twelve year old oyster diver, and the masked driver.” 1

Sloppy people sometimes leave this comma out in cases where it would be better left in. And amateur grammar pedants speak of the Oxford Comma as though it were a sacred rule — nay, a timeless cornerstone of the Code of the Literate.

The Oxford comma, however, is not a rule; it’s not even a benchmark of sound practice; it is merely a thing. In fact, so many other people have written about the arguments for and against its use that I would feel silly going on at any length about it.

But I do have one small argument to add to the mix: a simple yet powerful exhibit, which shows — with mind-blowing clarity — just how non-mandatory the Oxford comma really is.

Original book cover of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Exhibit A: Dustjacket cover (not the actual first edition, but pretty much the same).

Famous book, written by a fellow of Oxford college: Oxford comma explicitly omitted. This is not a mistake, nor an accident of the cover’s design: the actual title of the book is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — no serial comma.

Game, set and match.

  1. Notice that in the example given, the inclusion of the Oxford comma does not remove the ambiguity — it’s still not clear whether the speaker’s uncle is also, in fact, the oyster diver.

Walt Hickey, writing for FiveThirtyEight, shows that “the people who tend to prefer the Oxford comma also tend to be the kind of people who will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent.”

John McIntyre, the longtime editor behind the “You Don’t Say” language blog at The Baltimore Sun and author of “The Old Editor Says”… is more blunt: “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”

Joel (Author) ·