Oxford Comma Memes: Evidence Against the Oxford Comma?

I’m taking a break for Greek linguistics to talk about English punctuation.

I’ve been wanting to writ this for a while and finally got around to it when I saw John E. McIntyre‘s piece about why “not a word” isn’t an argument.

You’ve probably seen this picture at some point:https://i2.wp.com/wordyenglish.com/musing/i/oxford_comma_and_strippers_joke.jpgIt’s funny.

This one is funny, too:


Peevologists and grammar pedants particularly love little memes like this. They get to make their point and get a laugh at the same time. It’s just too bad that when it comes to making their point, well, the joke is on them.

Despite their entertainment value, sentences like these serve the opposite function if they’re taken as linguistic arguments. They demonstrate that world knowledge, encyclopedic semantics, and linguistic categorization invariably trump punctuation rules. The reality is that the more humorous the list of items, the lower the probability of misinterpretation. In fact, the very fact that these sentences can be used as jokes demonstrates just how unnecessary the Oxford comma is. For the joke to work, the audience needs to be able to properly interpret the list independent of comma usage. The humor only comes when an absurdist reanalysis of the category structure is put forward as a contrast.

The majority of humor is, itself, merely the unexpected juxtaposition of two or more entities.

So if we take the strippers, JFK and Stalin. The natural interpretation assumes that we are dealing with equipollent categories on the basis that each referent in the list belongs to the same higher order category: humans. The natural interpretation also relies on world knowledge of the referents involved: JFK and Stalin are male world leaders and strippers are prototypically assumed to be female unless the preceded by the adjective “male.” The joke interpretation relies on a reanalysis where the first item in the list functions as a higher order category for the following set. But that by itself isn’t enough for it to be funny. It also needs the natural interpretation is so strong that then the proposed reanalysis can be laughed at.

Sometimes world knowledge isn’t even necessary and the previous discourse context constrains the reading to just one:

Highlights of my trip home included hanging out with my brother, a clown and an amazing acrobat.

This sentence, even with the Oxford comma missing, still only has one reading. The interpretation is predicated on the fact that the higher level category is already established in the discourse: highlights and that category includes more than one item. The plural highlights prevents anything else. The comma isn’t necessary, thought it would still be useful here simply because redundancy. And the redundancy exists in normal speech, too. The prosodic structure of three item lists and the prosodic structure of CATEGORY X, Y and Z” are quite different. The comma simply formalizes that distinction in the written language.

All of this isn’t to say that good arguments for the Oxford comma cannot be made. They certainly can–the discussion in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example, is superb.  It’s just that a good argument requires example sentences that are significantly less entertaining.

I traveled to France, Caen and Le Havre.
I traveled to France, Luxembourg, and Brussels.

Each of these sentences would benefit from the Oxford comma (or its lack) for an audience whose knowledge of the world was lacking when it came to European geography.

But boring examples are just that: boring.

Suffice to say, even though they are terrible as linguistic arguments for the punctuation, as jokes, Oxford comma memes are still pretty awesome.

So keep them coming.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be back to Greek and cognitive linguistics.

*The typos, by the way, are intentional and subversive.

4 thoughts on “Oxford Comma Memes: Evidence Against the Oxford Comma?

Add yours

  1. So perhaps viewing punctuation practices—such as the inclusion or omission of the Oxford comma—as tools rather than as rules would be beneficial. We must always be gauging our audiences in speech and in writing to know what “contextual/cognitive effects” (to use Sperber and Wilson) are most likely, given the level of knowledge we share with that audience. For a piece of writing that is meant for general consumption by a broad audience, I elect conservatism and tend to use the Oxford comma. I’d rather be understood by all and tsk-tsked by only a few (those who know it isn’t strictly necessary) than misunderstood by some and tsk-tsked by a few (those who mistakenly believe that it is strictly necessary). If a writer trips me up by failing to gauge my background knowledge well, I can come to resent him or her. It takes extra processing power to get through the prose. I don’t want to be that writer. I want to be as smooth as a, well, pick your metaphor.

  2. Hey Mike, it’s been a while for me, but glad to see you still blogging.

    In regards to your post, I had been taught in school to use the Oxford comma. Up until a few years ago, I continued to use it correctly, and have so frequently encountered material that doesn’t use them, that I thought maybe I was remembering wrong and just quit using them in 2015. I think I will go back to my original usage now…

    By the way, I ended up deleting my original Discipulus Scripturae blog, but started up a new one today just to get me motivated and somewhere to start again.

    1. Welcome back Nathan! I’m not writing as much as I have in the past either. It seems to take more and more work. Wish I had seen your photography blog. I’d have been interested in that.

      I’ve added your new blog to my feedly feeds!

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