Dueling Opinions: The Oxford Comma



Why the Oxford Comma matters

Used before the conjunction in a list of three or more items, the Oxford comma is largely considered necessary to preserve clarity in writing. Without it, the meaning of certain sentences can be warped and cause confusion for readers.

As all students and writers know however, the Oxford comma is omitted when writing in Associated Press or Chicago Manual styles.

This has led to debate in the world of writing, with some arguing that it is necessary to keep ideas separate, and others claiming that it is redundant within a sentence. Those who oppose the Oxford comma, however, neglect to take into consideration the confusion its absence can cause.

Suppose, for instance, a woman posts on Facebook that she are having a dinner party with the couple next door, her brother, and her sister. Without the Oxford comma however, the woman is having dinner with the couple next door, her brother and sister.

Now, rather than four dinner guests, the woman has only two, and a very awkward dinner conversation. Without the Oxford comma, the woman’s brother and sister become parts of the subject before them: a married couple.

The Oxford comma is an important tool for separating parts of a list, and keeping the last two subjects in a series of three or more from becoming an implied part of the subject that precedes them.

Even a legal court in Maine ruled the Oxford comma necessary after a dispute between workers and the Oakhurst Dairy company regarding overtime pay. The decision was made in the case of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy on March 13.

Maine’s state law had attempted to list what activities did not justify overtime pay in the following statement:

“The canning, processing, preserving,

freezing, drying, marketing, storing,

packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.”

Thu-Huong Ha, a writer for Quarts, said, “There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?”

Ultimately, the court ruled that the statement was too ambiguous without the Oxford comma, and that the way the law conjugated ‘distribute,’ also contributed to the problem.

“To make the statute read the way the defendant claims it was intended to be read, the writers would have had to use “distributing,” a gerund—a verb that has been twisted into a noun—which would make it parallel with the other items in the series: “canning, processing,” etc.,” reported The New Yorker.

Needless to say, this court case was a victory for grammar enthusiasts everywhere. With even the law recognizing the Oxford comma as an important grammatical tool, it will become harder for others to dispute its relevance.

AP and Chicago writing manuals still omit the comma, however. While it is true that both manuals approve of the comma in certain instances to avoid misunderstanding, they have yet to make clear what exactly would constitute a misunderstanding in the absence of the Oxford comma.

Because of the continuing ambiguity in both of these writing styles, professors, students, publishers and writers of all kinds are left confused on exactly where and when it is appropriate to use the Oxford comma.

Another issue that arises is consistency. People who have not studied literature in depth or have many years between them and their college days may recognize the presence and absence of the Oxford comma as simply random, rather than stylistic.

In order to keep writing clear, consistent, and functional, separate writing styles must ultimately and finally agree on whether or not they will include the Oxford comma or omit it completely.

“There is no logical reason to leave out that final comma since it cannot hurt the clarity of a sentence even if not specifically necessary,” Brian Nelson, a reporter for the Arctic Llama wrote. “That a punctuation exists that can only clarify writing and then its usage is forbidden is nonsensical.”

Since even styles which denounce the Oxford comma allow its use to avoid confusion, it only makes sense that each style of writing should adopt its complete use.

Hansen Dendinger is a freshman biology major from Waxhaw, North Carolina. You can follow her on Twitter at @HansenDendinger


It’s time to stop using the Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, otherwise known as the serial comma, is a comma used after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items.

Use of the comma has been widely contested, to the point that even typing in “Oxford comma” into Google results in dozens of listings for people chiming in on the issue.

It is used in most every single stylebook, from MLA to APA, except for one, the Associated Press Stylebook, the holy grail of journalistic writing.

Grammar snobs and proponents for the comma argue that it is used for clarity’s sake and to keep a statement from being ambiguous.

Now, before introducing one of the more common examples used to defend the comma, I must say that due to the constraints of Associated Press Style I cannot use the Oxford comma.

One of the more common example used is:

“We invited the strippers, Hitler and Stalin.”

“We invited the strippers, Hitler [insert comma here] and Stalin.”

Those who would advocate for the comma would say that in the first sentence one is led to believe that the people invited are strippers named Hitler and Stalin.

They would then say that the second sentence is more clear due to the comma separating the names “Hitler” and “Stalin.”

My response to that, is who in their right mind would think that there are strippers named “Hitler” and “Stalin?”

First of all, who would want to hire them? Second of all, what man or woman would voluntarily call themselves that?

In all seriousness, the Oxford comma is superfluous and it is quite obvious that the there are three separate people or groups being referred to in those sentences.

Furthermore, the comma is meant to provide a separation between the last two ideas, but the word “and” already does this.

Not only that, but you wouldn’t use the Oxford comma when speaking to others.

Commas denote a pause, a space where one is supposed to take a breath, and you don’t need to pause more than once in a list.

If you were to do that any time you had a conversation with someone they would ask you what was wrong with you.

It’s use is redundant and wholly out of place.

Its lack of place notwithstanding, the Associated Press Stylebook was right to eschew the use of the comma.

The organization behind the book released a tweet on May 29, 2013 that stated “We generally don’t use the Oxford comma in a simple series, @johannaharvey: The U.S. flag is red, white and blue. #APStyleChat.”

That should be that, it’s very obvious that it is time to stop using the Oxford comma, it is a complete and utter waste of space, and it isn’t even worth the paper that it is printed on.

Speaking of the paper that it’s printed on, while the amount of space it uses may be negligible, it adds up over the billions of times it has been used.

The amount of paper that has been wasted on the oxford comma is astronomical, and it grows with every day that passes. Leading to an increased demand for paper, which means that more trees are chopped down to fuel this inane need.

With the current levels of deforestation the earth can’t afford to use the amount of paper that the Oxford comma takes up.

Every tree that is cut down is another tree that cannot absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which leads to a increased amount of CO2 buildup.

Using the Oxford comma is not just about convenience or common sense, at this point, not using it is a moral issue.

Trees are being cut down en mass without being replaced, all so that people don’t have to put a little thought into what they’re reading.

That’s all it takes, a few seconds of just thinking about what you’re reading, if you’re not doing that, then why are you even reading whatever it is you’re reading in the first place?

Continued use of the Oxford comma is directly contributing to the destruction of our environment as we know it.

So stop using it, it’s redundant, completely unused in conversations and contributing to climate change.

Stop being lazy and think.

[The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the author]

Q Russell is a junior journalism major from Charlotte, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter at @Q_M_Russell