The Oxford Comma
This little curlicue has been fiercely debated by grammarians for centuries
The Oxford comma has the distinction of being one of the most hotly debated elements of the English language. Also referred to as the serial comma, this little curlicue has been fiercely defended — or shrugged off — by grammarians for centuries.
Do you really need to use the Oxford comma? The short answer appears to be yes, with many opportunities for rebuttals and debates.
Hello, my name is Fidel Andrada. Let’s take a closer look.
What Is the Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma is, you guessed it, a comma that’s placed in a series of three or more items. It’s used in both “and” and “or” lists. For example:
She liked to read books, paint portraits, and take her dog for a walk.
Another example would be:
Make sure he doesn’t eat any peanuts, bread, or carrot sticks.
Should You Use the Oxford Comma?
In the lists above, was the second comma really necessary? Wouldn’t the powers of deduction lead anyone to believe those were three separate activities or snacks? Do we really need to use serial commas?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. Let’s look at another example:
Everyone stood up and cheered when the president, Marsha and Greg entered the ballroom.
In this example, it seems like the president is someone named “Marsha and Greg.” Instead, it should read:
Everyone stood up and cheered when the president, Marsha, and Greg entered the ballroom.
Examples of the Oxford Comma
Let’s consider another example. What if a mother asked her child if he ate his breakfast of eggs, toast and orange juice?
Does that mean the mother was asking the child if he ate eggs, toast with orange juice on it? Yuck.
An Oxford comma provides a distinction between elements in a list of three or more items.
Worse than soaking toast with OJ, a lack of an Oxford comma can even have legal ramifications.
Five Million Dollars
A group of dairy delivery drivers in Maine received a $5 million settlement in a debate, due entirely to the lack of an Oxford comma. In legislative documents, certain tasks were singled out as exempt from overtime payments.
The documents indicated that the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” certain products are exempt from overtime payments.
Without a comma in the final series of tasks, “packing for shipment or distribution” could be read as “packing for shipment OR packing for distribution,” where “packing for” is used for both “shipment” and “distribution.”
This is quite different from [packing for shipment] or [distribution], wherein the drivers are doing the latter task. By placing an Oxford comma before “or distribution,” it would’ve been clear that “distribution” was its own separate act.
Don’t you think five million dollars is quite a loss, due the lack of a single, tiny comma? You can be sure an Oxford comma was added to the revised documents.
Going to the Experts
Let’s take a moment to review the main style guides. We’ll see where each of the heavy-hitters come down on the subject.
In September 2017, the Associated Press (AP) released a clear, concise statement via Twitter. They wrote, “We don’t ban Oxford commas! We say: If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma.”
That’s precisely the kind of thing that could’ve saved the state of Maine a whopping $5 million.
The AP Stylebook is commonly used amongst journalists. That’s why, when we read articles from some of our favorite news outlets, we might notice the lack of the Oxford comma.
The APA Stylebook by the American Psychological Association, however, is far firmer on their stance on the Oxford comma. In the punctuation section of the guidebook, you’ll note the APA “requires the use of the serial (or Oxford) comma in lists of three or more items.”
The Chicago Manual of Style
Turns out the Chicago Manual of Style falls on the same side as the APA. They, too, require the serial comma in a list of three or more items. It seems to be a matter of ambiguity. In an effort to minimize exactly that, the Chicago Manual of Style calls for the serial comma.
MLA Style Guide
Finally, the MLA Style Guide from the Modern Language Association requires the use of the Oxford comma as well. The only folks who leave it open to interpretation are the knuckleheads at the Associated Press.
Don’t Go Nuts
Alright, alright. If someone is truly adamant, don’t allow them to get your knickers in a bunch. It’s true that the Oxford comma is sort of “open for interpretation.” But, in the event of academic writing, be sure to check your style guides. Three out of four require it.
In the event of blog writing, go with your gut. If you want to be clear and concise, use the Oxford comma. If you want to run into a situation akin to the delivery drivers in Maine, go without it.
For such a tiny punctuation mark, the comma carries a lot of weight.