Published on September 28, 2018, at 9:10 p.m.
by Emily Hillhouse.
The Oxford comma is the last comma before the final conjunction in a series. For example, it’s the comma after “blue” in the following sentence: “The painting is green, blue, and red.”
While this seems like a simple concept, the Oxford comma is actually one of the more elusive punctuation marks in the English language. While Associated Press Style editors say it is not necessary in a simple series, like the one above, they also make no hard rule on its use.
As a result, people in the public relations industry and beyond debate the Oxford comma’s use. Even officials in the U.S. State Department have admitted to engaging in this dispute.
As for supporters such as Dr. Laura Lemon, an assistant professor at The University of Alabama, the Oxford comma provides peace of mind for writers that readers will understand the intended meaning of their carefully constructed sentences.
“I probably always use the Oxford comma. I think it brings clarity in a simple series,” said Lemon, who teaches public relations writing courses at UA.
On the other side of the argument, consider copywriter and “As Told Over Brunch” blogger Sara Woznicki’s piece entitled “I Hate the Oxford Comma: Why You Don’t Need the Oxford Comma”. In it, she noted that “they’re not doing anything for you, so get rid of them. Clarity means getting rid of excess, so get rid of the Oxford comma.”
In this blog, Woznicki also highlights how “righteous, pretentious Oxford comma supporters” make her dislike the comma even more. Given the fact that the popularity of this debate has led many to take it online, it is no surprise she feels this way.
If you aren’t a supporter of the Oxford comma, block me
— josh (@Rosh_Jobinson) September 21, 2018
Social media gives us an outlet to express ourselves and connect with others who agree or disagree. There is something about the Oxford comma that makes us want to utilize the digital landscape to take a stance on it.
Consider the online response following the result of a court case in Maine, in which Oakhurst Dairy drivers won $5 million due to a missing Oxford comma in their contracts.
Woznicki points out that rare instances of true confusion like this one could be avoided if people wrote clearer sentences in the first place. Oxford comma supporters, however, took this case as a win.
I just need everyone who thinks the Oxford comma is optional or unnecessary to know that a dairy company in Maine lost $5 million because they didn’t use an Oxford comma in their contracts and it led to ambiguity about what they would and wouldn’t pay workers overtime for.
— Madison (@MadisonLintonn) February 19, 2018
— Marcela Landres (@marcelalandres) February 12, 2018
Interestingly enough, Woznicki’s co-blogger Cazey Williams describes himself as an “avid Oxford comma user.”
“In third grade or whatever grade you learn punctuation, my teacher taught the Oxford comma not as an option, but as mandatory, and it was not until mid-high school I learned there was another group of people with an opposing viewpoint,” he said. “Old habits die hard.”
Because of this discrepancy, Lemon believes the Associated Press should make its rule less vague, as AP Style exists to ensure all writers are communicating using the same style, establishing uniformity in mass communication.
“The purpose of the AP Style is consistency. And when the rules sit in that vague space, it doesn’t help that purpose,” she said. “Why are we using a stylebook if everything is optional?”
Why are there such polarized sides in this debate to begin with?
According to marketer and author Ann Handley, it’s because we love to debate grammar, especially grammar rules like the Oxford comma that are not really rules at all. They are instead nuanced parts of our language that serve as something structural on which we can have an opinion.
Speaking to Woznicki about the phenomenon, she said that this debate allows us to feel like we’re a part of a team.
“I think it begins with ‘rightness.’ When this first came up at the company I was working at during the blog post, I was enraged that people thought I was ‘wrong’ for not using it,” she said. “It was honestly like a month of constant back-and-forth (in mostly good fun) about rightness.”
For Williams, the Oxford comma debate is a result of grandstanding to show others you know grammar rules.
“I have seen others go head-to-head, but I don’t think either side is willing to compromise or find ’comma’n ground on the other side of the Oxford comma,” he said (with a nice pun).
There’s a lot going on in the world that we can’t change, but we can exclaim our position on the Oxford comma proudly. However, where does this leave writers who are still confused about whether to use it?
The answer lies in consistency, which is important with Oxford comma fans and foes alike.
“The biggest thing for me is that you just have to be consistent. So, if you chose not to use it you should never use it, or if you use it you should always use it,” Dr. Lemon said.
“I am personally a big fan of consistency, so I would advise to not flip flop by sometimes using the Oxford comma and sometimes not using it,” Woznicki said.
“I am open to people not using the Oxford comma as long as they’re consistent — and admit Oxford commas are not wrong either,” Williams said.
Since we may have to wait a while for AP Style to take a stance, it seems that one’s decision to use the Oxford comma comes down to consistency, clarity and personal choice.