The Oxford Comma
Despite a number of idiosyncrasies, English is a fairly straightforward language. The rules for written and spoken English are generally logical and consistent. Even formal business and academic structure and rules adhere to those same general principals.
Therefore, it is somewhat interesting that one of the more hotly debated “rules” in English revolves around punctuation; specifically, the serial comma.
Origin of the Oxford Comma
The serial is more commonly called the Oxford comma due to its traditional use by the editors, printers, and reader at Oxford University Press. The Oxford comma is placed before the coordinating conjunction in a written series of three or more item. For example, a list of three lunch items with the Oxford comma would be “an apple, a sandwich, and milk”; without it would be “an apple, a sandwich and milk.”
Why this seemingly simple matter of punctuation has evolved into somewhat a ‘cause celebre’ among linguists and educators is somewhat of a mystery. However, the Oxford comma and its use has inspired thousands of webpages, articles, memes, and even been the basis of a ruling by a court in Maine. Facebook has a number of Oxford comma groups and it is a frequent Twitter and Reddit topic. It has also inspired hundreds of t-shirts and other clothing items; Vampire Weekend’s debut album includes the song Oxford Comma, making it the only rule of punctuation to have a song written for it.
It is important to note, especially for those who have decided to learn English online that there is no “right” way to use the Oxford comma. (To be honest, most people will be totally unaware of whether you use it or not.) Whether you should use the Oxford comma is a matter of what type of writing you are doing and for whom.
When to use the Oxford Comma
One of the main reasons for using the Oxford comma is to remove ambiguity. It also eliminates the possibility that the reader will make a stronger connection between the last two items in the list than actually exists or is intended.
Here are some examples which illustrate those arguments.
One of the more famous examples used by those on the pro-Oxford comma side is taken from an article published in The Times of London. In an article concerning a Peter Ustinov documentary they wrote:
Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
Proponents argue that this lack of the Oxford comma can lead the reader to think that Mandela is a demigod as well as a dildo collector. Those on the other side argue that even with the comma the sentence is still ambiguous and could mean that Mandela is a demigod, but not a collector.
Tails magazine once published an article on celebrity chef Rachael Ray where they noted that she found inspiration in cooking, her family and her dog.
The lack of an Oxford comma can create doubt or confusion as to the names of family members or parents. A book dedication posted on Twitter read “This book is dedicated to my parents, Maureen Johnson and David Bowie.” Other examples of how the lack of an Oxford comma can create confusion include “I would like to thank my parents, John and Lisa” and “The documentary included interviews with Merle Haggard’s ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
For some reason, the combination of strippers and former presidents is commonly used to illustrate the importance of the Oxford comma. Consider the following sentence;
We invited the strippers, Bush and Obama to the party.
Friends of the Oxford comma state the lack of the comma creates the impression that former presidents Bush and Obama are strippers. The other camp insists that faulty sentence structure is the problem and suggest that the best wording would be:
We invited Bush, Obama and strippers to the party.
The Court Case
One of the more compelling cases for the use of the Oxford comma is a 2017 United States course case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy.
The case involved overtime pay and the court was required to interpret a statue which stated that “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” were activities exempt from the requirements for overtime pay. The specific question before the court was whether the list meant the distribution of goods or only the packing of the goods for distribution.
The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, basically the style guide for state representatives advised against the use of the Oxford comma. As the case moved through the court system, the Circuit Court stated that the statement was ambiguous and noted that under Maine law, “ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose” and ruled that those whose job was to distribute the goods were entitled to overtime pay.
When issuing the court’s decision appeals court judge David J. Barron wrote, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”
As we stated earlier, in the vast majority of cases whether a writer uses the Oxford comma makes little difference. The general reasons to use the Oxford comma are:
- Writers of technical or scientific articles or manuals should always use the Oxford comma.
- When use of the comma is part of typical practice.
- It better matches the cadence of spoken English.
- It resolves ambiguity.
The general guidelines for not using the Oxford comma include:
- Use of the comma is inconsistent with conventional practice.
- When the comma has the potential to introduce or cause more ambiguity.
- Where space is at a premium and the comma adds unnecessary text.
- Where the last two items are connected and not truly separate and instead are two parts of a single item.
It should be noted that as is typical of the debates around the Oxford comma many academics state that to use or not use the comma depends entirely on the sentence.
Specific Style Guides
One of the problems facing writers is the number of style guides in use. Colleges, universities, governments, newspapers, blogs, and businesses use a wide range of styles.
Here are some generalities by region and institution along with some specific style guide rules.
- In general journalists do not use the Oxford comma. The style guides of The Times of London, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Canadian Press, and the Los Angeles Times specifically state that the comma not be used.
- Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the United States Government Printing Office, and The Chicago Manual of Style require the Oxford comma to be used.
- Most British authorities, with the exception of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Oxford University Press, oppose the use of the comma.
- In general, the Oxford comma is not used outside of non-academic circles in Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
The good news for writers, whether they are native English speakers or those that have learned English as a second language, is that in almost every case where there is a hard and fast rule governing the use of the Oxford comma the rule will be clearly spelled out.
For general everyday use such as letters, tweets, and status updates the writer should feel free to use or not use the Oxford comma as they wish.
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