Oxford comma or no Oxford comma: that is the question

By Rachel Popa, Managing Editor

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Photo Courtesy of bookmakingblog.com

There is one question that has polarized people across the world. No, it’s not what the meaning of life is, or what the best strategy is for the conflict in the Middle East – it’s the Oxford (or serial) comma. The Oxford comma is a comma that is used in a series before the word “and.”

Writers, editors and grammarians alike have argued whether or not publications should use it. The argument for the use of the Oxford comma came to a fever pitch this past March when a judge ruled in Maine that an employee of a dairy was entitled to a $10 million settlement since his employer failed to grant him overtime pay. In Maine, legal statutes do not use the Oxford comma, and in the dairy worker’s case, its omission made all the difference. The language in the statute listed “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate tasks that weren’t eligible for overtime pay. However, without the Oxford comma, the language only excluded packing shipments. Therefore, the worker was entitled for more overtime pay. As the judge said in his opinion, “for want of a comma, we have this case.”

According to AP Style (the manual used by newspapers, media websites and legal documents), the Oxford comma is not necessary, and therefore isn’t used. Some publications however, do use the Oxford comma (like The New Yorker). The Oxford comma is used much more in literary-style writing, so why is the use of a comma so divisive?

Well, some would argue that the Oxford comma adds clarity to a sentence. In the case of the diary worker, the extra clarity was worth $10 million. There’s also the classic example: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Without the Oxford comma, the sentence would imply that JFK and Stalin are both strippers, which is obviously not factually accurate. Many style manuals besides AP use the Oxford comma (such as Chicago Manual Style, which is used by magazines), making AP’s decision to not use the comma seem like an unpopular one.

Since the Oxford comma is exclusively a stylistic decision and is not required to be used in American English, its inclusion in writing can seem unnecessary. Purveyors of AP Style argue that the clarity the Oxford comma provides can be achieved by reworking a sentence. For example, the infamous sentence I mentioned before can be made more logical by changing the wording around: “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.” Longer sentences that list things in a series can be reworked the same way: “I ate chips, cookies, ice cream and pizza” can suggest that the pizza and ice cream were enjoyed together, but adding an “and” before ice cream can clear that up.

Personally, I’m fond of the Oxford comma. Before I started studying journalism, I used it in everything I wrote. When I’m not writing things for this paper or my journalism classes, I use the Oxford comma. For me, it makes more sense to add punctuation rather than add extra words to make a sentence clearer. Although I must admit, after a long semester of writing in AP Style, not using the Oxford comma becomes a habit. It’s only after I realize that I’m free to use the comma when not writing journalism that I start using it again. While I love the Oxford comma, I must admit it’s not imperative to use it unless the stylebook you use requires you to.

Some also find the Oxford comma to be pretentious since it seems that only highbrow grammarians and fancy East Coast magazine editors seem to care about it, but I disagree. Even though I do partially attribute my love of the Oxford comma to the fact I am a grammar nerd, I think the comma has value outside of English classrooms. I think it’s important for writers and editors to consider other ways to structure sentences, with or without the Oxford comma.

While it’s unlikely that AP still ever submit to the will of Oxford comma obsessed writers like myself, it’s nice to see that the comma could do some good for the dairy worker. The Oxford comma may never have a place in the AP Stylebook, but it will always have a place in my heart.

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