A Man Walks Into a Bar – Riff #3

An Oxford comma walks into a bar,
where it spends the evening
watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.

OK, grammar posts are bad enough, but punctuation? Come on.

Wait just a minute. Punctuation has a purpose: It helps the reader understand what the sentence means. The first time through, dagnab it.

In a proposal context, I’d say that’s it: Anything more than that is misplaced effort. That means any strongly held editorial opinions about colons versus dashes, and semi-colons versus periods should be left at the door. Of course there are legitimate distinctions in the use of these marks, but this is a speed-and-feed environment: We’re not writing literature for the ages. Or punctuating it.

So what’s with the joke? Well, although it purports to be an example of confusion caused by the lack of an Oxford comma, it isn’t really.

The Oxford comma (or serial comma)
is a comma placed between the last two items
in a series of three or more.
The Write Life

The trouble with this sentence starts earlier, and every editor I know would and should add a comma between “watching television” and “getting drunk” to make it clear who was imbibing to excess.

An Oxford comma walks into a bar,
where it spends the evening
watching the television, getting drunk and smoking cigars.

Good? Well, better. Oxford-comma adherents would also do this:

An Oxford comma walks into a bar,
where it spends the evening
watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.

Does that make it easier to read quickly? I think so, although maybe just by a hair. If you think so, then add that final comma. Pretty simple, eh?

But.

During planning sessions, I’ve had partner company managers ask intently whether we’re using the Oxford comma and tell me that it’s essential we use it consistently, by which they mean “always” or “never.”

Thppt. In my own writing I use it when, IMHO, it’s needed for clarity, and I don’t bother when it’s not. I use it when I want to signal the reader that another element of a list is coming: when someone might read the last two items as one. I also use it when the elements of said list are a bit, ahem, wordy, and I don’t have time to shorten them.

Here, yes:

Our procurement system uses competitive principles in the bidding process, accessible information sources, transparency in the evaluation of bids, and clear documentation at all stages.

Here, meh:

Our procurement system will deliver grommets, gudgeons, grapples and gribbles.

But.

In a proposal, consistency is part of professional presentation: consistency in colour palette, terminology, writing style and, yes, punctuation. If your executives or reviewers believe in always/never consistency, then you’re pretty much stuck with the Oxford comma everywhere, because never using it is not an option.

Proposal writing tip

Sorry about that.

If you really hate the Oxford comma or resent spending time adding them to someone’s text, consider replacing lists of three or more items with bullets. That takes time, too, but makes list elements even more obvious, and text faster to read/scan.


The afore-referenced writing site cites a case where a contract interpretation turned on the absence of an Oxford comma. Considering that proposals form part of the contract (albeit as the document with the least precedence), clarity matters.

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