The Oxford comma – or the perils of a non-English scientist


English is today’s leading scientific language. No question about it, what so ever. However, it could equally well have been German, French, or Spanish. In Sweden, science was to a large extent written in German up until the 1940s, but after that well-known geospatial conflicts tended to favour the English language.

English as scientific lingua franca is of course very convenient for all you native speakers out there. You lucky bastards! For the 90% of mankind that are not, it is not as convenient. It is a struggle to find the right words, the right balance, the little magic flow, or Fingerspitzengefühl as the Germans would say (in lack of a proper English word for it); simply, what we want to say do not come naturally, it has to be drawn out, slowly and painfully.

But I enjoy it more and more. English is a fantastic language, not only because it makes conversation possible with other people, but also because it’s great possibilities to alter flow, tempus and direction. A sentence can easily start, but then a little comma can make it float away in a different direction, and then a new comma can make it get back on track, and then again drift, and back, and so forth, etc., etc., etc. Or it may be short. Succinct even. Endless possibilities.

But how shall we non-natives learn to write proper Anglaise? For my own part, I read a lot of novels in English. Mainly Sci-Fi or Fantasy, often thick books, with swords and fire on the cover. Many books. In the beginning it took time, but nowadays I read as quick in English that I do in Swedish. I believe reading is the precursor to writing, so the more you read, the better you will write. And then, of course, you need to practice. This little blog is one attempt for me to write in a more free form, not as constricted and concise as scientific English.


And then there are the Oxford commas. I fail miserably and repeatedly with those darn Oxford commas. We don’t really use them the same way in Swedish. Last week I asked Michelle Wille, my Canadian PhD-student, to read through a draft manuscript that I was working on. And there they came again, the Oxford commas. Or rather, that I had forgotten to put them in. Again. For you, that like me, tend to forget when, and how, a Oxford comma should be used, please see the picture above. I hope I get them this time, and the next time.

Thanks Michelle, Jo, and others, that read the manuscripts before we submit them – and long live the Oxford commas.

Jonas Waldenström


3 thoughts on “The Oxford comma – or the perils of a non-English scientist

  1. It’s far from universal, even in English (as Jo pointed out above). My boss, for example (from England!) often omits them.
    And just this week we had an argument about 3rd person passive (ick) vs. 1st person active voice. So even in English, writing isn’t always easy.
    But unlike non-English scientists, native speakers generally get poor training in English grammar, so the difference between active and passive voice, where adverbs go relative to verbs, etc. Most of my knowledge of English grammar comes from French.

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