Gird your loins grammar geeks! We are about to enter the territory of heated debate known as the Oxford Comma Wars. Why is this humble punctuation mark such a big deal? Is it a dead and gone old-timey rule best to be buried? Let us debate!
What Is The Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma, also known as the Harvard or serial comma, is the finishing punctuation in a list of things. For example:
I would like a coffee with sugar, creamer, and whipped topping.
The comma after creamer is the Oxford comma. It always appears before the coordinating conjunction.
AP Style vs. Everyone Else
The style guide that journalists and newspapers adhere to does not require the Oxford comma. The previous sentence in AP style would read:
I would like a coffee with sugar, creamer and whipped topping.
The Oxford comma is widely used in many style guidelines. It’s a staple of academic writing and is passionately defended by grammar gurus around the planet as an absolute staple of clear and concise writing.
In contrast, there is a whole throng of people who find it extremely overrated. As Gus Lubin puts it, “The grammar snob’s favorite mark is just a waste of space.” Shots fired!
To Use or Not to Use the Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma is as fine to use as it is not to use. It comes down to a matter of style. Use it or don’t, but be sure to be consistent.
Some argue that not using the Oxford comma creates confusion. For example, how would you read the following sentence?
She took a photo of her parents, the president and the vice president.
It’s easy to assume the woman’s parents are the president and vice president when, in fact, she took a photo of her parents, the president, and the vice president. See how one extra comma changed how the sentence may be read?
In some instances, the Oxford comma does add precision to a series and eliminates possible confusion. In others, it is a waste of space and an extra piece of punctuation to stumble past. Consider, for example, the following example posed by Arika Okrent in The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars:
“Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.”
This sentence comes from the 1934 style book of the New York Herald Tribune. Thanks to the comma, it reads as though Mr. Smith is the donor of the cup when, in fact, he was merely in attendance.
Where a comma is placed can, and indeed does, impact the meaning of a sentence. However, in each example presented above, comma confusion can be entirely avoided by rewording the sentence.
To use or not to use the Oxford comma – that is the question. The answer is entirely up to you. But may we please leave you with something to ponder?
No Matter the Comma, Be a Better Writer
The Oxford comma is a matter of preference, of style. Some arenas, like academics, will require it, but the vast majority of the world finds it an overrated and unnecessary punctuation. Perhaps instead of fueling the Oxford Comma Wars, we should instead lobby for better writing.
Punctuation does not make or break a sentence alone. Clarity and context are part of writing. Regardless of whether you opt to be pro Oxford comma or not, be a better writer. Your audience will thank you.
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