The Oxford comma is a controversial little punctuation mark. Some people don’t know what it is. Newspapers don’t use it. Writers and authors are of differing, and often emphatic, viewpoints. Even the SEO/Web Writers at Next! Ad Agency had a heated discussion as to whether it would be included in our in-house style guide. What is the Oxford comma? Where did it come from? What’s all the hubbub? I’m glad you asked.
What Is the Oxford Comma?
Also known as the Harvard or serial comma, the Oxford comma is the final comma in a list of three or more items, before “and” or “or.” For example: Our teachers offer classes in calligraphy, paper-cutting, and origami. If we were using AP (newspaper) style, it would read: Our teachers offer classes in calligraphy, paper-cutting and origami. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it? Well I, for one, disagree.
FH Collins, author of Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary, is credited with the decision to use the Oxford comma. His dictionary first appeared in 1893 in booklet form and is unavailable to reference. In 1905, it was published as a book and included this passage:
“…whether to write ‘black, white, and green,’ with a comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write ‘black, white and green’ — I very positively decide in favour of the first.”
He goes on to explain that use of the comma ensures that green is emphasized the same as the other two colors. Makes sense, right? It reduces ambiguity. It’s a good thing.
There are those who strongly oppose its use. They say that ambiguity can easily be fixed by rephrasing. But I say ambiguity is in the eye of the reader.
The $10 Million Comma
I’m strongly in favor of the Oxford comma, in case you haven’t figured it out. Please accept the following examples into evidence:
Today’s menu includes meatloaf, potatoes, peas and carrots. Is the last item carrots alone or the ever-popular menu staple, peas and carrots?
I had a meeting with my sister, a librarian and an author. Did I meet with one person or three?
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish product; and
In the last example, there is no comma before “or.” Perhaps you think this is silly, but this is actual text from a list of activities that are not eligible for overtime pay for Oakhurst Dairy. Drivers for the dairy sued the company over its failure to pay overtime. Without the Oxford comma, the rule could be read to only exclude overtime pay for the act of packing for shipment or distribution. The drivers had distributed, but not packed, the items. The drivers won the lawsuit to the tune of $10 million. To quote the opinion of the circuit court judge, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”
I rest my case.
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