The Heated Oxford Comma Debate

September 27, 2018
Posted in Blog, Other
September 27, 2018 Madeleine

The Oxford comma refers to the comma located before conjunctions and also within a sequence of three or more words. The term itself is referred to by many other names, such as serial comma, series comma, and Harvard comma.

Outside of journalism circles, the Oxford comma and its associated debate are relatively unheard of. However, there exists a heated debate about its usage and relevancy within modern prose, with bloggers, authors, editors, and many more individuals in the field of writing questioning its value.

According to businessinsider.com, “the Oxford comma is extremely overrated,” and only holds significance for so-called grammar-lovers who were taught the concept in school as a way to pare down ambiguity and thus render their writing to be rational, clear, and concise.

Academics tend to use the Oxford comma systematically, as it is found in all of its scholarly glory in essays, dissertations, research publications, and far more relating to academia.

However, outside of the educational sphere, “normal” writers such as journalists and bloggers tend to omit the Oxford comma entirely.

The following examples show the use of the Oxford comma in word structure versus the omission of it altogether:

Example of Oxford comma usage Example of omission of Oxford comma
“Pants, skirts, and shorts” “Pants, skirts and shorts
“Bikes, trains, and cars” “Bikes, trains and cars”
“Aerosmith, Nirvana, and Metallica” “Aerosmith, Nirvana and Metallica”

In the first column, all of the examples show the Oxford comma right before the conjunction (“and”) in a series of words. The second column shows the omission of the Oxford comma in each series of words.

While many people might find each set of examples acceptable for writing, plenty will point out that the omission of the Oxford comma might “pass” when it comes to simple series of words but can become immensely problematic in other instances when omitting it can result in misinterpretation of meaning.

Consider the following examples provided by Grammarly.com:

Using the Oxford comma Omitting the Oxford comma
I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty. I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
The Oxford comma is clearly placed before the last term in the series and results in an unambiguous sentence to readers that you love your parents, as well as Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. The absence of the Oxford comma in this example can potentially lead readers to misinterpret the sentence as meaning that you love your parents and that your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

The use of the Oxford comma in this situation may seem utterly necessary. Without it, readers might very well assume that the writer’s parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. However, opponents of the Oxford comma hotly contest its use even in these types of situations where the Oxford comma seems mandatory.

The counter-argument presented by opponents is that any misunderstanding or misinterpretation can be avoided by merely rephrasing sentences to not need the Oxford comma.

Grammarly provides the following example to demonstrate this idea:

The sentence “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” could essentially be rewritten as “I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.” The end result is an absence of the Oxford comma, as well as any potential misinterpretation of the writer’s meaning to the reader.

To Comma or Not to Comma

To this day, there is no clear-cut, decisive ruling on the use of the Oxford comma. Further exacerbating the issue are the opinions of well-established and widely respected associations who mandate the usage of the Oxford comma. Among these associations include the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, White’s Elements of Style, and the MLA Style Manual.

Conversely, there remain equally respected organizations that advise against the use of the Oxford comma, including the Associated Press, as well as The Canadian Press.

Quick facts about the Oxford Comma

  • The Oxford comma is an option and not a requirement (unless expressly stated by an employer)
  • The Oxford comma is far more prevalent in the United States than in the United Kingdom, South Africa, or Australia
  • The pretentious aura of the Oxford comma results from its roots in the style of the venerable Oxford University Press
  • It’s far more common in non-journalistic prose and fairly standard in the US, but it’s not often used in the UK, Australia, or South Africa.
  • The Oxford comma is standardly used amongst publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist.

It’s exceedingly difficult to make a firm conclusion on the necessity and utility of the Oxford comma when the matter remains so divisive amongst respected publications, reference sites, and writing manuals.

Opinions amongst journalists, editors, and writers remain divided, with many utilizing the Oxford comma as a stylistic choice, while others consider it an essential component of quality writing, necessary to avoid misinterpretation and ambiguity,

Ultimately, for the ordinary, non-academic wordsmith writing in American English, the omission of Oxford commas connotes a sense of writing that is of a journalistic style, while the inclusion of it hints at a more formalized, academic style of writing.

Whether you are in support or adamantly against the use of the Oxford comma, the matter boils down to one inescapable fact: The Oxford comma is the final comma in a list of things and is used for purposes of clarification.

Countless writers remain convinced that rephrasing sentences can result in a lack of necessity for the Oxford comma, but the fact remains, that the matter will go on for decades as writers consider the necessity and importance of the concept.

As Grammarly.com succinctly put it, “Oxford commas are like the Ugg boots of the punctuation world. People either love them or hate them or don’t know what they are.” To further clarify; if international superstar Britney Spears’ wears her beloved Ugg boots in 2018, while fashion and style authority Anna Wintour at Vogue sneers at their utter existence, who really is to say if Uggs should or shouldn’t be part of the enduring fashion landscape?

In conclusion, using the Oxford comma is really up to you. If you are a casual writer or blogger, there’s no need to incorporate it into your writing. However, be prudent with your choice of language to ensure that the lack of Oxford commas in your prose results in writing that is clear, concise, and not open to misinterpretation.

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