The Oxford Comma Bugs Me

Teaching fifth grade means that I must prepare twenty-six children to write as if they were prolific and published authors.  The writing test is coming.  I hear its heavy, rubber boots stomping down the hallway.  This test looms over me and follows me around.  It flicks me in the head and taps me on the shoulder.  It waits under my bed to wake me in the middle of the night.   Pure writing comes from that magical place in our brains that knits the imagination into the written word.  The results are cable-knit stories, beautifully crafted from brilliant minds.

I will digress to explain that the knitting metaphors are inspired by my neighbor and dear friend.  She knits like a crazy woman-very impressive.  She can knit in any given situation.  I have seen her knit and carry on a conversation during pedicures and while watching T.V.  I think she can knit and juggle eggs simultaneously.  I realized that the gift of writing is just as fluid as her skill with those knitting needles.

It is a sick moment when watching my friend knit makes me obsess over my writing instruction.

I love when children can describe an event with velvet words and small pieces of their hearts splattered on the page.  There is nothing more sublime than an entire class writing with the world blocked out.  The cadence of pencils scraping on paper is calming.   This point in writing instruction has proven to be my “happy place”.  I scan the dimly lit room.  I see small heads feverishly looking up words in their thesauri.  They highlight, use editing marks, and discuss plausibility and wording.  I hear angels singing.  Somewhere, someone is playing a harp.

Teaching writing is a purely subjective arena in education.   I have been in as many writing seminars as years I have been alive.  Each presenter has contradicting ideas of what effective writing looks like. I am expected to bring back sage words of writing advice to the staff.  But, it seems that all I can muster is to encourage teachers to do what feels right.

The non-negotiable area of instruction is GRAMMAR.  I have always been an avid writer.  The grammar part is just a hindrance to me.  In college, I remember being shocked out of my mind when my mythology professor gave me A’s for my essays.  In my confusion and delirium, I brought him my writing to make sure he had not made a mistake.  He told me my grammar was fine.  I kept wondering, “What about the commas, comma splices, and (EGADS) the elusive semicolon?”

At the ripe old age of forty-two, I realize that one reason I majored in Italian is because of the wisp of the wind grammar rules.  I could write an entire essay discussing the neurotic psychosis of Dante without using any punctuation!   I hit pay dirt!!

Back in the eighties, in high school-a conjunction TOOK THE PLACE of a comma.  (Notice, I used a comma and a hyphen-for emphasis.)   Now, we teach students to put a comma before the conjunction ALL OF THE TIME. The comma can be redundant when paired with a conjunction.  Yes, so this blog is specific and grammar laden.  Sorry, but it is just bugging me.

What is the ‘Oxford comma’?

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

I am in the midst of writing some essays to submit to the county.  I work with one teacher who is a published author and another teacher who taught A.P. English. I owned up to being a literary masochist, and I have asked both people to edit my essays.  There is nothing more humbling and unnerving than giving a raw piece of writing to someone to edit.  I shuddered and possibly blacked out as I pushed the SEND button to the first person.  She was kind and did a wonderful job of giving me scholarly suggestions.  She let me know that I had omitted many commas.  I knew this.  I skipped over the commas as if they were optional.  I laugh in the face of the commas!

I haven’t sent the essays to my A.P. friend.  I believe I need to drink chamomile tea and do two hours of Yoga before this happens.  She will red-pen it like a seventies teacher with a tight bun and polyester pants.  I have waited because I found a split infinitive in my essay today. I bet there are others hiding from me.   I don’t want her to see my split infinitives and dangling modifiers!!  I feel so exposed.

When I teach writing, I try to make the writing experience somewhat pleasurable.  I know grammar is important and I will succumb to the mafia comma rules.  I will even teach them to my class.  There may be a moment when I encourage them to assess whether the comma is necessary.  I believe this is considered literary license.

My students are smart.  One of my biggest pet peeves is beginning a sentence with “and”.  Well, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien do it!  And that is what you get when your 5th grade class is well read. Humph!

Until the test, I will focus on keeping their hearts in the writing while jumping through the grammar hoops.

I will teach writing, love my students and they will be fine.  (NO COMMA!)


3 thoughts on “The Oxford Comma Bugs Me

  1. We had this conversation just yesterday in my fifth grade classroom! Of course, we don’t teach grammar since the writing test doesn’t count for AYP. (Admin actually said this.) None of the grades before us do, either, which is just SUPER since we are the only ones to take the state writing test in elementary school. We feel some kind of responsibility for getting the kids ready so I do Daily Language Review (which always turns into a lesson because there is always something they never heard of before).

    We’ve talked about how putting a comma before the “and” in a list has changed over time, so they need to know that both are correct. Then this week there was a sentence with “and”, and I told them they needed a comma before it. I explained it was joining two simple sentences to make a complex one so it needed the comma. Then I gave an example using “but” and “or”. Five of them will remember it. 😉


    • Yes, teaching grammar is a dicey proposition. I haven’t even discussed the complex-compound sentence that will be tested. Something like this: Although I was exhausted, I graded twenty-three thousand papers, and I answered fifty emails.
      Writing is important whether it is AYP or not.
      I agree that each day that the grammar lesson begins, I realize that there is a bevy of skills that elude the fifth grade mind. We have begun “diagram the sentence” contests during grammar. I’ll do anything at this point!


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