Colbert and commas

A friend posted this clip from “The Colbert Report” on Facebook the other day. In it, the titular host offers a fierce defense of the Oxford comma.

That’s the comma that sometimes shows up in lists of three or more items. It’s also known as the serial comma.

The topic of punctuation came up on the Comedy Central show because Colbert was interviewing the band Vampire Weekend. One of the band’s songs is called “Oxford Comma.”

As a copy editor with a journalistic education and background, I don’t use the Oxford comma. To me, the American flag is red, white and blue.

But if I were to take a job that used, say, the Chicago Manual of Style, I would use the serial comma. Then, the American flag would be red, white, and blue.

The comments on my friend’s Facebook posting included some people arguing that the Oxford comma is a matter of right or wrong. Others never knew there was a debate.

In my editing course, I tell my students that they may need to use the serial comma in their term papers in English classes, but not in their journalism assignments.

I’d say it’s a matter of style, similar to whether names of blogs should be italicized. Just pick a style and use it, along with common sense.

Colbert, by the way, cites “The Elements of Style” to make his case for this comma. I wonder if he’s aware of the criticism that book has taken in recent years.



  1. Nooooo. This is not my understanding of an Oxford comma at all.

    An Oxford comma only comes before ‘and’ to avoid confusion or ambiguity.

    The American flag is red, white, and blue

    is never correct (at least according to me — I guess I will have to challenge the writer of the Chicago Manual of Style to a duel).

    The American flag is red, white and blue*,* and brown is the usual colour of the flagpole.

    *,* is the Oxford comma, preventing the reader from thinking (even momentarily) that brown is in the flag.

  2. Here’s the problem with AP’s style on this: “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series”. One is then left with a judgment call. The beauty of the serial comma, if one follows Chicago and uses it *every* time, is its consistency.

  3. Serial comma cuts down on confusion. Use the serial comma… unless you’re a journalist… in which case, learn something about linguistics and the English language.

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