Last week, we finished up our first-ever series, which detailed the different editing and book building services I offer here at madisonkdarby.com. I get so many questions about what each editing style can bring to a book that I’m glad to finally have them all in one place! Now, you can find an in-depth discussion about each editing style on the pages detailing my services—Editing Services and Book Building Services. If you need a refresher, here are the articles for copy, line, and developmental editing as well as book building. If you have any more questions or are interested in applying some of these styles to your book, please reach out!
Now, our Writing Advice articles will be focused on making us all better as writers, with a couple of humorous, grammar-nerd (I’m embracing this word now. It’s a real thing.) articles scattered here and there. My passion really comes out with these topics, and I’m excited to get started! Hopefully, we’ll all learn a bit while laughing together about how crazy (but awesome) the English language can be and how using it effectively can benefit you in ways you didn’t even realize.
Today, we’re talking about something I get extremely fired up about on a daily basis. I’ve entered countless debates about it with my husband (who makes fun of me for caring about this so much) as well as ranting sessions with my English major friends. For such a small (literally) piece of punctuation, it really causes quite a stir every now and then—today, we’re discussing the Oxford comma and why YOU should use it.
Okay, really, it may not seem like a big deal… but the Oxford comma has been a topic of debate for a long time, and not just by me!
But first, what is the Oxford comma? It’s the last comma used in a series of three or more items, also called the “serial” comma. Remember the “items in a series” comma rules you learned back in the day? It’s the one that comes before the last item of the series. Here’s an example below (with the Oxford comma in red):
“Today, I want to eat cheese, crackers, and pretzels.”
People who aren’t fond of the Oxford comma would want this sentence to be written like this:
“Today, I want to eat cheese, crackers and pretzels.”
I’m not a fan of the second sentence… but more on that later.
It’s not certain when the Oxford comma was invented, but there is some speculation that it was first mentioned (not by its present name) in a handbook for the Oxford University Press released in 1905. It was given the name “Oxford comma” later by Peter Sutcliff in 1978. No matter who first placed that comma in a sentence, it’s been causing trouble ever since.
Before we go any further, I need to explain my journey with the Oxford comma and why I’m its number one fan. As a middle-schooler, my love for grammar was developed in my language arts class, where we diagrammed sentences, learned the nuances of different clauses and phrases, and nailed down punctuation rules. This class was taught by my mom, so I got a double dose of grammar at home, too! From the beginning, the comma was one of my favorite pieces of punctuation, and I had such a good time deciphering and using all the rules correctly. My mom once threw a marker when a student added a comma splice into a sentence… so maybe I inherited this passion?
As I navigated high school and college, I decided to become an English major. It was in college that I began defending the Oxford comma. Rules for the English language can sometimes bend in places, or they change over time. Because of this, there were many times when my peers and professors would have conversations about what was actually right or needed in the grammar world. The Oxford comma was one of these debates! Thankfully, many of my English major friends fell in the camp of defending the Oxford comma—it can really help with the clarity of sentences. Let’s talk about it!
You see, this comma helps get rid of any ambiguity in sentences with lists. Without it, the meaning can become muddled. The following sentence is one of the most common examples of how a lack of this comma can make the meaning ambiguous:
“I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Without the comma, it almost sounds like the person’s parents are Ayn Rand and God! With the Oxford comma in place—“I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God”—we can clearly see the writer is thanking these three groups/people individually.
But that’s not all! There are other ways a lack of this comma can be confusing, such as when you wonder if the two items not separated by a comma (Ayn Rand and God) are connected in some way and must be grouped together. It can change the entire meaning of a sentence. I encounter this confusion a lot with the dissertations I edit.
At this point, you may wonder why people don’t want to use it. To be fair, I checked out the arguments for both sides. In a nutshell, some people (mostly journalists) think it’s unnecessary and clutters up the sentence. A Business Insider article from 2013 wrote that some believe this comma “was a stylistic conceit of publishing houses, unnecessary for precise language.”
I take offense to that. But moving on…
This writer also brought up an interesting point about how it could CAUSE ambiguity, and that there were some moments where the Oxford comma itself could be confusing. While I disagree with that and believe those instances would be extremely few and far between compared to not using the comma, I thought it was an interesting point to bring up. He also talked about how it takes up unnecessary space and that there are revisions that can be made that don’t involve inserting an Oxford comma. However, I found these revisions were actually more cluttered than simply adding a tiny comma. For instance, here was a proposed revision for the “Ayn Rand” conundrum:
“To my mom and Ayn Rand and God.”
I don’t know about you… but I think I’ll just stick with adding the comma.
If you’re laughing at me at this point, I don’t really blame you—I can get pretty heated about this, which may seem ridiculous. But like I’ve mentioned, I’m not the only one! This tiny comma is continuously a subject of debate among the different writing style guides, and some switch sides every now and then. For the guides that recommend using the Oxford comma, we have the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, and APA, as well as programs like Grammarly, just to name a few.
For those against, we have AP style, the world of journalism, and legalese. The reason for this is these are the people whose focus falls squarely on expressing ideas as concisely as possible with no extra fluff, whether that comes in the form of words or punctuation.
It may seem crazy that all of these people have such strong opinions about this comma, but believe it or not, the Oxford comma was all over the news a couple of years ago because of its involvement in a court case. In 2017, it was all a Maine dairy farm could focus on when some of its workers sued because of a discrepancy in the laws for overtime workers. Because of the ambiguity of the phrasing due to the missing Oxford comma, the workers actually ended up winning the case, and the dairy settled with the workers for five million dollars!
The Oxford comma fans had a victory that day.
But really, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. For those who scoff at this debate, the Oxford comma has proven its importance, even within a court of law!
I’m getting worked up over here! I told you, the Oxford comma does this to me. Thankfully, it seems we’re entering an Oxford comma phase, where most people do recommend using it. Most of the sites and articles I came across through a simple Google search on the subject revealed that many are on the comma’s side nowadays. But that can change! Back when I was in high school, it seemed that many people fell in the camp of not using the comma. Oh, the times they are a-changing.
If you’ve made it this far, first of all, thank you for caring about grammar! And thank you for listening to my rant. This was actually pretty cathartic. It’s the first time I’ve put my thoughts about this down on paper. It makes me excited to write more articles about topics like this!
Thanks for tuning in today, and keep an eye out for a new article next Tuesday! We’re going to talk about how to battle writer’s block, a scary topic for many of us. I’m eager to share my thoughts with you, and I’m hoping they’ll be helpful as you continue your writing journey.
Until then, write on!