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Strippers, JFK, and Stalin Illustrate Why You Should Use the Serial Comma

09.20.2011

I am a staunch believer in the serial comma (i.e., the Oxford comma). This image, courtesy of The Gloss, illustrates why:

On a personal note, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

(Artwork original source)

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  • heather

    hah! love the dedication.

  • Matt

    Actually, you’re wrong. Serial/Oxford commas are simply a matter of house style and preference. Some publications use them, some don’t. So both of these sentences mean the exact same thing.

    If JFK and Stalin were strippers, you could avoid ambiguity by writing:

    “We invited the strippers: JFK and Stalin.”

    • rose1957

      Please note: “exact same” is redundant.

  • Matt

    That last sentence was just a little joke.

  • http://www.cobiuk.com Ed

    It’s just a poor choice of word order. The Oxford comma really is just a stylistic choice (And I choose not to use it). If you say “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers” then voila, the problem goes away. Word order is obviously something to which one should pay attention in the quest for clarity.

    I do really like this though and came here so I could use it as an example in a presentation.

    • Jason Dabrowski

      I, for one, cannot wait to see this new band, “Stalin and the Strippers”

      Again, the comma clarifies meaning, whereas without it, there is ambiguity.

      Leaving out the Oxford comma is like having a bulleted list and not having a bullet point on the last item.

      • David

        If you are able to think of that as a band then the sentence becomes equivalent to “We invited JFK, Beetles.”
        This interpretation doesn’t make ANY sense.

        • E

          No, using only one comma and calling Stalin and the Strippers a band makes the sentence the equivalent of a quoted statement, “We invited JKF, Stalin and the Strippers,” as if you were TALKING TO Stalin and the Strippers.

    • Jason Dabrowski

      Also, which is easier? Adding one character, or completely rewriting a sentence?

      Every time I see someone try to defend losing the oxford comma they invariably justify it’s necessity. We can use the comma or reorder our sentences so that we don’t have to use it? That seems like something beyond a sylistic choice, doesn’t it? With it, we can have our lists and sentences how we want them, without it we have to reorder everything in order to make clear what was already clear with one character.
      Lists are not always random, sometimes the order of a list is there for a reason.

      • E

        You are correct. As a future English teacher I applaud you AND the Oxford comma, without which ambiguity would destroy the world!

      • Red Five

        Indeed. And in some cases, I hate to say it, but sometimes people just aren’t smart enough to reorder the sentence properly to satisfy the sans-Oxford crowd.

    • Douglas Williford

      The problem doesn’t go away. How many invitations were there? In your sentence, there are two. One for JFK, and one for Stalin and the strippers together. Also, as I read your sentence, I am expecting at least one more to the list- JFK, Stalin and the strippers (if the sentence ends here it doesn’t make sense), Donny and Marie, Obama, and Putin. The Oxford comma serves the purpose of indicating the end of the list. Otherwise, the last two on the list can be considered as one object/subject on an incomplete list.

  • Jeff

    Ed, what if one is not at liberty to change the order of the list as in the given example at the bottom, “On a personal note, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Should Ayn Rand and God get to be thanked before one’s parents simply because some people think that a comma is simply too much work to save all of the readers the trouble of trying to figure out what the writer is trying to say? Or maybe something where the order is not of a personal nature, say, “The order of the contestants will be the Smiths, James and John.” Does that mean that the couple ‘The Smiths’ who did not provide their first names will be going first, followed by James, then followed by John, or does it mean the gay couple James & John Smith will be the contestants and James gets to go first? Sure, as you suggest some of this could be cleared up by using a colon, but, that is just as many key strokes as adding the last comma because you have to hit and hold shift to type a colon. All this trouble and this conversation could be eliminated simply by typing one single comma.

    • bressennuit

      but as written, it seems as if the parents ARE Ayn Rand and God. With a serial comma, then we would know that the parents are 2 people, separate from Ayn Rand, and God.

      As in, I’d like to thank my parents, John and Mary…..implies that the parents names are John and Mary, thus 2 people. I’d like to thank my parents, John, and Mary, implies 4 separate people…the 2 parents, someone else named John, and someone else named Mary.

      See?

      • David

        That’s his point.

  • Jay

    I’d like to point out that in every case where the sentence meaning might seem ambiguous without the “oxford comma” there is an article or adjective in front of the first noun; “the strippers”, “my parents”, “those horses” etc. Without this word the meaning of the sentence becomes clear, e.g. “We invited strippers, JFK and Stalin.” The meaning becomes even more clear if we move the word to the second or third item in the list. e.g. “I’d like to thank God, my parents and Ayn Rand.” or “We all enjoyed crab, tuna and those horses.”

    • Jon

      Not quite. Try, “We ate sandwiches, ham and cheese.” The reader assumes the sandwiches were ham and cheese sandwiches, but what if they were roast beef sandwiches as your main course, and they happened to be served with ham and cheese on the side? Then you need “We ate sandwiches, roast beef, and cheese.”

      Likewise, “We invited strippers, Candi and Trixi.” Still sounds like Candi and Trixi are the strippers, but what if they’re your nuclear physicist friends who are coming to watch? Then, “We invited the strippers, Candi, and Trixi.” is really your go-to.

      With regards to your listing idea, in theory this works out, but list order is non-trivial. Maybe one wants to thank one’s parents first, because they were the biggest influence?

      • Jay

        Well then I would argue that a comma is only appropriate if you are making a list, “We ate sandwiches, ham and cheese.” If you mean to convey that you ate ham and cheese sandwiches, you could either use a simpler construction, “We ate ham and cheese sandwiches.” (notice the lack of commas, which could easily change the meaning of the sentence) or use a colon, “We ate sandwiches: ham and cheese.”

      • Jay

        As an addition to my last reply, if you were to use “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” To mean that the strippers are in fact JFK and Stalin, then “We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.” could mean that you invited a stripper called JFK, and Stalin.

  • Jay
  • tybodger

    Despite being hilarious this image is inaccurate. A colon or semi-colon would be needed after strippers to make it sound like jfk and stalin were strippers. Also whoever gets the impression that without a comma you are informing jfk and stalin that you invited strippers clearly doesn’t understand where quotations are needed.

    We invited the strippers; jfk and stalin = invited strippers named jfk and stalin
    “We invited strippers.” Blank said to jfk and stalin. = A statement to jfk and stalin

    • http://www.verbicidemagazine.com jackson

      It’s not inaccurate, as a comma can be used to introduce additional information. And while a colon could be used in the second instance (since it’s a list, of sorts), a semicolon would be grammatically incorrect.

      As for a quote informing JFK and Stalin that strippers were invited, I don’t think that was inferred. The gag strictly relates to the usage or omission of the serial comma.

    • Red Five

      A semicolon would indeed be incorrect, as it indicates two sentences which are being joined due to similarity or opposition of meaning. “We invited the strippers; JFK and Stalin” is incorrect because it joins a complete sentence with a fragment. While a colon would as noted be correct, IMO it looks visually clumsy in this circumstance.

    • rose1957

      Using a semicolon would be incorrect. You would need a colon.

    • Timothy

      A colon (not a semi-colon) is only used when the first dependant clause INTRODUCES the second clause. In order to use a colon, you’d need to say something like, “Here are the names of the strippers: JFK and Stalin.”

      The usage in the image is an appositive (a noun word or phrase that renames or clarifies the noun it proceeds) and appositives always use a comma, not a semicolon.

      Your quotation example misses the point even further.
      “He’s dead, Jim.”
      “What’s up, doc?”
      The name after the comma clarifies who the speaker is talking to and is part of the quote, not a clarification made by the person relaying the quote.

  • Mark

    It is, in fact, inaccurate. “JFK and Stalin” would only be “additional information” if it qualified as a dependent clause, and it does not. Therefore, it should not be separated from the main clause by a comma in order to imply the second meaning. “JFK and Stalin” is a list. That list is separated from another noun at the end of the sentence, by a comma. If you append a list to another list, with a comma, you end up with a list! There are many good examples of the use of the Oxford comma, but this ridiculous example doesn’t help its cause.

    • Nathan Merrill

      It is a parenthetical aside.

      Consider if we added “to the party”.

      “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin, to the party”

      You can then drop JFK and Stalin and have

      “We invited the strippers to the party”

      Indeed, the same is true in the base case; “We invited the strippers” is grammatically correct, and thus appending the “, JFK and Stalin” would indeed be legitimate.

      • hjd2023

        that is called an appositive…..

  • Mark

    The other problem with the use of the Oxford comma, in this context, is that commas set off direct address. The addition of the Oxford comma could lead the reader to infer that you are telling JFK about the strippers and Stalin.

    • Red Five

      While that may be true in some contexts, that is not the case here. The comma(s) is(are) clearly being used to set off elements of a list, not to indicate direction of address of a statement.
      “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin; the Smiths; and the Joneses, Terry, Teri, and Tara.” Note the use of the semicolon to indicate two levels of list separation rather than free-standing sentences joined for whatever reason; it should be used in a list only when there are more than 2 elements in the list and any of those elements has subordinates. You can plainly see that JFK and Stalin are strippers, and that the Smiths and Terry, Teri, and Tara Jones were also invited.

  • Yarlan

    Without the Oxford comma, a “false appositive” is created. That’s why the comma is necessary. People who pretend that it doesn’t matter simply don’t know their grammar. They probably don’t even know what an appositive is either. I suspect that those who leave out the Oxford comma have never taken a course in logic. They are completely unaware of the existence of “truth tables” that are created to identify invalid arguments (arguments that lead to false results), and as a result, they cannot follow the syllogistic thinking that the wonderful cartoon at the top of this page embodies. I therefore dedicate this comment to those who oppose the Oxford comma, Dimwit and Numbskull.

  • Joseph Drake

    Even a hardcore red would not want to see Stalin naked.

  • Teaflax

    This illustration is completely incorrect.

    In order for the bottom image to be correct, there would either have to be no comma after “strippers” or “strippers” would have to be put in without the definite article (in which case a colon should replace that comma anyway).

    The Oxford Comma is situational, just like dashes are in English; it makes sense to add them when their absence would cause confusion (i.e very rarely).

    I bet you reflexive Oxford Comma fetishsts write nonsense like “The Spanish painter, Picasso”, rather than the correct “The Spanish painter Picasso”. That’s the only way you could even get close to parsing the last sentence as the illustration does.

    • Nathan Merrill

      First off, you’re just plain old wrong; in the second case, “JFK and Stalin” is being read as a parenthetical aside. Think about this:

      “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin, to the party”

      VERSUS

      “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party”

      Drop the “to the party” and the sentence still works. You can even drop the parenthetical aside (JFK and Stalin) and the sentence still works, (We invited the strippers to the party) proving it is, in fact, a parenthetical aside.

      Secondly, grammatical rules should always be kept as simple as possible and as close to natural language as possible. The Oxford comma is a vastly simpler rule:

      “Every item on a list is separated by a comma, unless there are commas internal to the items on the list, in which case they are separated by semicolons.”

      As you can see, this is a very simple rule – you always do the same thing, and in the case of the exception, you always do the same thing, except with semicolons.

      Compare to the “no Oxford comma rule”:

      “Every item on a list is separated by a comma, except for the second-to-last and last items on the list, which are not, unless there are commas internal to the items on the list, in which case every item on the list is separated by semicolons, including the second-to-last and last items on the list.”

      This is a hugely inconsistent rule – not only is there a confusing exception in the base case (meaning that every time you apply the rule, you have to remember an exception) but in the exceptional case, the exceptional case works completely differently from the base case! This is enormously confusing and obviously a terrible rule.

      Moreover, if you listen to the way people speak naturally, when they say something like “Peter, Paul, and Mary”, the pause between “Peter” and “Paul” is the same as between “Paul” and “and”; why wouldn’t you use a comma there if it sounds exactly the same?

  • http://viajaryamar.com Anne

    ha ha! this is great!

  • http://baranovastudio.tumblr.com/ Ksen

    The use of the oxford comma is really up to the writer, and the audience for the which the writing is being done, period.

    • Timothy

      the saem can b sed 4 teh use of gramer spelin n puncutation