We’ve had some debate lately, both in the office and on our Facebook® page, about a very serious topic – the Oxford comma. Who knew people could be so passionate about punctuation? Personally, I don’t use it. I try to use only enough punctuation to make a sentence readable and I think the Oxford comma yucks things up. But – I have heard some great arguments for it and can appreciate the value it provides (although I hate to admit that).
Before diving into this debate, let’s define the Oxford comma – the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma or Harvard comma) is used to clarify meaning when you have a series of words in a sentence. It is placed before conjunctions such as ‘or’ and ‘and’.1 Here’s a commonly seen example:
‘After beating the Steelers, Tim Tebow thanked his parents, God, and Ms. Trunchbull.’
‘After beating the Steelers, Tim Tebow thanked his parents, God and Ms. Trunchbull.’2
In sentence one, it is pretty clear that Tim Tebow is thanking three sets of people. However, in sentence two, one could misread and think that Tebow’s parents are God and Ms. Trunchbull. By the way, for those of you who were wondering who Ms. Trunchbull is – she is the mean headmistress from the movie ‘Matilda.’
Regardless of opinion, the Oxford comma is a matter of style – dependent on which style guide you reference that is.3 For example, AP style omits the Oxford comma unless doing so would make a sentence confusing (as in the example above). However, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Modern Language Association (MLA) and many college writing guides advocate for its consistent use.4
Another great argument for the Oxford comma came from a co-worker. He remarked that the Oxford comma was imperative in legal writing. The example he gave was in deciphering a will:
‘I leave my estate to my children, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.’
‘I leave my estate to my children, Alvin, Simon and Theodore.’
The argument could be made that sentence one directs the three heirs to split the inheritance equally. However, in sentence two, the absence of the Oxford comma could indicate that the estate is split in half with 50% going to Alvin and the remaining 50% to be split between Simon and Theodore. Makes you think.
So why was the Oxford comma ever eliminated in the first place? Wait for it – because it is ugly! Ok, not necessarily (that’s just my opinion). Truth be told, it was eliminated to save on the valuable real estate in newspapers, magazines and other publications where space comes at a prime price. It is unnecessary so why add clutter? Oxford commas have also been labeled as redundant because technically, the conjunctions ‘or’ and ‘and’ serve the same purpose as the comma.
In theory, there is no right or wrong answer (unless you are bound by restraints that require you to write based on a certain style guide). But, a good rule to follow – use good judgment. If your sentence is ambiguous without an Oxford comma, of course, do your readers a favor and include one. Conversely, if the Oxford comma adds ambiguity, eliminate it. Whatever you decide – be consistent.
What are your thoughts on this ‘Great Debate?’
1 Fogarty, Mignon. “The Oxford Comma, in Pictures.” Grammar Girl :. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 May 2013. <http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/oxford-comma-pictures.aspx>.
2 “The Case for Using the Oxford Comma.” AGBeat. N.p., 2 July 2012. Web. 17 May 2013. <http://agbeat.com/editorials/the-case-oxford-comma/>.
3 Fogarty, Mignon. “The Oxford Comma, in Pictures.” Grammar Girl :. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 May 2013. <http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/oxford-comma-pictures.aspx>.