Sometimes, out of that proverbial nowhere (I’m sure there’s some proverb about it somewhere), you find yourself having a discussion with your big brother about the Oxford comma. When this happens, it’s important that you not blame yourself. It’s not because of anything you did. Sometimes these things just happen, and no one can make sense of them. The universe is a fickle fig. Anyway, sometimes it’s not about the Oxford comma. Sometimes it’s a conversation about football and the lunacy of not going for two points every time, sometimes it’s politics and the lunacy of politics, and sometimes it’s about Faulkner (lunacy inherent). But sometimes it is about the more controversial side of punctuation. My brother and I tend to disagree on certain things, even when we agree. I find it endearing. He doesn’t. (But he really does.) It’s a brotheresque kind of idea. Maybe Dostoyevsky could explain it. Just make sure to tune him out if he starts talking about Oedipus. Still, brotherly debating aside, as it turns out, we’re both all for that extra kicky little swish in our three-or-more series. When it’s appropriate to use it, that is. Could be genetic. Hard to say.
There’re reasons to use ol’ Oxy, and there’re reasons to not . . . use it. Robert Frost taught me a good deal about the Oxford comma’s usefulness, and sometimes its overusedness. (And a lot about the nature of physics and one’s inability to occupy two roads simultaneously, for what it’s worth.) The first of his poems I ever memorized was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In 1923, Frost penned the opening line of the poem’s fourth stanza as “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” wherein the loveliness of the woods is contained in their darkness and depth. No serial comma there. However, and this is where you have to step lightly lest the nerd-rage overcome you, E.C. Lathem, the definitive editor of Frost’s canon, added the Oxford comma after Frost’s death. The poem as it is now most often published reads, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” marking each item in the list as a separate property of the woods. Outrageous, no?! The woods as they have now been amended to exist are lovely, and they are dark, and they are deep. But they are not necessarily lovely because they are dark and deep, no longer a place where the poet can disappear, no more to be burdened by his as-yet-unkept promises. No more to be burdened by E.C. Lathem and his grammatical swashbuckling!
Of course there’s a time to use the Oxford comma, just as there’s a time to leave it in that box in the back of your closet that no one is allowed to open. Like those times you have to draw upon your knowledge of Pauly Shore’s filmography for the sake of clearer social discourse, so too is it sometimes necessary to clearly separate multiple ideas. Without it, your will might read, “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, Sally and Rico,” forever enraging your sister and brother (for whom your dogs were lovingly named). “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, Sally, and Rico” at least gives your siblings a fighting chance. The dogs’ll just have to settle for a quarter each instead of half. Good luck agreeing on who gets Bea Arthur. (Maybe it would be easier to say, “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, my sister Sally, and my brother Rico. But then you get into the whole mess of whether you should put commas after sister and brother. No one wants to be that clear anyway.)
Now, if you feel I’ve just wasted several minutes of your life, and you are now going to forgo the use of all commas as a means to disambiguate your language, I won’t be surprised. As another poet wrote, “Who gives a $%#@ about an Oxford comma?” It’s a question that is good, important and timely, and one I think people should ask themselves everyday, in front of the mirror. Morning, noon, and night.