The Oxford Comma: Should It Stay or Should It Go?
Should the Oxford comma be or not be? Rather than grabbing your red pens and pitchforks, it’s time to look at both sides of the argument to really decide if that serial comma should stay or go.
Before you even started reading this blog post, you already had your opinion set on the Oxford comma. You love it or you loathe it. You think we need it or you think we have enough common sense to do without it.
Nobody who’s obsessed with words is really neutral about this.
If you do a simple Internet search, such as I did with “should you use the Oxford comma,” you’d assume that the majority of the grammar community rallies for the Oxford comma. The first few pages alone in the results page are only filled with articles campaigning that the Oxford comma is the only way to go.
But if you do the opposite search of “should you not use the Oxford comma,” you get a decent amount back on articles complaining why it’s pretty much overrated.
Ok, so what are the stats? The go-to poll in this debate actually shows that the community is divided fairly evenly about this. 57% are pro-Oxford comma and 43% are anti-Oxford comma.
(If you’re a stickler, you’d say that 57% is higher than 43%, making the Oxford comma-teers the clear winner. But the margin isn’t significant enough to claim it as a majority.)
So, if the comma community is evenly divided, then is there a right answer? Should we use the Oxford comma or should we drop it?
Let’s Get The Oxford Comma Straight
This section is for readers who don’t know what the Oxford comma is and why everyone’s feathers are getting so ruffled by a punctuation mark.
First, let’s see if you can spot the difference between these two sentences:
Example 1: I invited to dinner Henrietta, Walter, and Pauline.
Example 2: I invited to dinner Henrietta, Walter and Pauline.
Did you catch it? Example 1 has a comma after “Walter” and Example 2 does not. That extra comma is the Oxford comma.
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma or Harvard comma, is a comma that’s used before the penultimate item in a list of three or more and after the conjunction “and” or, well, “or.”
The intent behind the Oxford comma is to show that every item is to be considered separate from the other listed items.
The Argument For The Oxford Comma
Those in the yes camp for the Oxford comma argue that using it eliminates any confusion.
Let’s look at our example sentence again without the Oxford comma: I invited to dinner Henrietta, Walter and Pauline.
Without the Oxford comma, proponents argue, I’m telling Walter and Pauline that I invited Henrietta to dinner. If this is my intent, then the Oxford comma isn’t necessary. But if I’m trying to convey that I invited all three people to dinner, then the Oxford comma would clarify that.
In other words, without the Oxford comma in this sentence, the sentence is unclear. The Oxford comma provides certainty and reduces the pause in reading the sentence trying to sort out the meaning of the sentence.
The Argument Against The Oxford Comma
If you’re in the no camp for the Oxford comma, you’d say that the Oxford comma offends our common sense.
Not to be redundant, let’s look at our example one more time with the Oxford comma: I invited to dinner Henrietta, Walter, and Pauline.
The anti-Oxford comma group thinks this sentence with that second comma tedious. When you read that sentence, you should understand the context of it within the whole of the piece. You’d already know if I’m telling Walter and Pauline that I invited Henrietta to dinner or that I invited all three in the party.
They’d also argue that if I was truly was talking to Walter and Pauline, then the sentence would likely be rephrased: Walter and Pauline, I invited Henrietta to dinner or even I invited Henrietta to dinner, Walter and Pauline.
In short, the Oxford comma insinuates that we cannot use logic to figure out the meaning of the sentence.
What Do I Think?
My years of English literature courses and creative writing workshops trained me to dutifully use (and ❤️) the Oxford comma. Since most academic writing styles like MLA and APA require the use of the Oxford comma, I included it in every sentence with a list of three or more without hesitation.
Once I got into the working world of digital marketing, my habits changed. Most companies and clients I worked for preferred the journalistic AP style that eliminates the use of the extra comma.
At first, I was divided. The Oxford comma made perfect sense to me when my nose was stuck in a book. But when I put some space between my face and the words, I appreciated the lack of the comma.
It actually took me longer to switch from two spaces to one space between sentences. But that’s another story.
My verdict: I’m neutral.
I don’t get worked up when I read a sentence with or without the Oxford comma. I don’t get out my figurative red pen and correct the sentence. I simply note whether or not the writer uses the Oxford comma and continue reading.
For a writer with such an indifferent stance on such a hot issue in the writing community, that’s pretty outrageous.
So, Should The Oxford Comma Stay Or Go?
We shouldn’t focus our attention on whether we should raise the Oxford comma to deity status or assassinate it on the spot. We should focus on comma consistency.
The truth is that much of the frustration around this topic is the lack of consistency in using it in a writer’s work. To put it bluntly, the writer (or editor) needs to proofread more closely.
Sure, both camps roll their eyes when seeing or not seeing the Oxford comma in a sentence. But if they see that the writer regularly uses it or not, then the reader can recognize that pattern and remember it.
Writer, make a choice and stick with it. Reader, pick up the visual cues and remember it.
It’s really that simple.
What side do you take? Are you for the Oxford comma or against it? Share your opinion below.
Sentences without the Oxford comma look out of balance to me. It’s like punctuation feng shui.
I’ve never placed grammar in a philosophical light before. I like the way you think!
Or it’s a sign of emotional issues I have yet to address. Lol!
I agree with Eric. That’s my first impression of sentences without the Oxford comma as well.
I also think that Oxford commas serve to guide the rhythm of the sentence. If, even for a fraction of a second, a reader has to slow down and figure out if she’s looking at a list or a second clause, the writer is doing a disservice to the piece.
I was trained to use the Oxford comma by Sister LaSallette at St. Mel’s Elementary School, although it wasn’t given that fancy name. We were trained to use the comma or a red circle would be drawn where we left it out, no need for questions or esoteric philosophical debates about it! I believe I dutifully trained my children to follow in the same manner. 🙂
Without the comma, the reader works harder. As a writer, I can ease that burden by assuming the work of properly punctuating with the Oxford comma. Because I want my readers to easily understand my sentences and enjoy the reading experience, I use it. I’d use ANY device that achieves those goals. 🙂
I never thought of it like that and that is the best way to put it. As a writer we should all want our readers to clearly understand what we’re trying to convey. If there’s any ambiguity or confusion it makes them work more to understand. So why not use all of the grammar tools so there are no questions? It is about the readers enjoyment which means they should not have to work in order to enjoy something we write.
Statement 1: “Nobody who’s obsessed with words is really neutral about this.”
Statement 2: “My verdict: I’m neutral.”
Option 1: KT is not obsessed with words.
Option 2: “really neutral” and “neutral” are significantly different.
Option 3: At least one of the two statements is false.
As a non-writer, I also prefer the Oxford comma. As EricJBaker says, it just messes up the rhythm when it’s missing.
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I recently learned about the Oxford comma and don’t understand why I never learned about it in school or college. Nevertheless I have a few co-workers that were talking about it one day and I understand what it is but I never knew the term for it. When I looked up some examples I absolutely believe it’s necessary in certain cases.
You might have seen this example: This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God. What a writer said about it was, “It’s likely the book is dedicated to the author’s parents, Ayn Rand, and also God – but then again, it could be that the author’s parents are named Ayn Rand and God.” So without the Oxford, it makes it sound like the person’s parents are a notable author AND God which does not make sense. They meant to say something different so this is a case where the Oxford comma is needed.
I would vote to use it more often than not because it makes writing precise and clear in my opinion. But I would not cringe if it’s not there because I only used it sometimes but still I was a good writer.