The Oxford comma isn’t something that I hear discussed a lot without provocation. When it is discussed, however, proponents and opponents defend their position ferociously. People I’ve asked about the Oxford comma say either the sentence looks wrong without it or that it’s useless and pointless. In 2014, FiveThirtyEight polled 1129 Americans on the use of the Oxford comma, and their responses were split 57% for to 43% against the use of the comma.
The history of this comma is interesting. It derives its name from its use by Oxford publications and is also known by the names “Harvard comma” and “Serial comma.” I’ve learned English using the comma, and my senior year English teacher was adamant about its use. I know people who don’t see a need for it, seeing it as a waste of ink (or a pixel). The most interesting trivia about the Oxford comma, however, is that Associated Press standards omit it.
Most people know of it. Some say it’s useless, but others (myself included) staunchly defend it. The offending piece of punctuation has a reputation (probably due to its name) of being “fancy” or “proper,” not something that many people do.
Before any discussion of this fun, but serious topic, some definitions about the Oxford comma (formally called a series or serial comma) are probably necessary. The Oxford comma is the comma immediately preceding the “and” or “or” in a list of three or more objects. Take, for example, the sentence “My favorite foods are pizza, fettuccine alfredo, and ice cream.” This can also be written without the comma as “My favorite foods are pizza, fettuccine alfredo and ice cream.” In this situation, clarity is preserved with or without the comma.
However, the Oxford comma had some relatively recent legal impact. In Maine, a law (following Maine’s legislative guidelines) cost a dairy company millions of dollars in overtime pay from a class action lawsuit by some of its employees. The New York Times quoted one of the lawyers for those employees, who said, “that comma would have sunk our ship.” The lack of a comma, in this case, allowed workers to claim overtime pay and caused lawmakers to redesign the bill, restructuring it with semicolons instead of commas as part of legislative overhaul.
This, however, leads to an interesting lexical conundrum. Why does the comma even exist? I think it’s for clarity. There are times that, unlike the previous example, the comma is necessary to provide clarity that matches the way we speak every day. For example, I’d like to thank my parents, editor and coach for convincing me to write for the Observer. Without an
Oxford comma, this reads that my parents are my editor and my coach. This isn’t true. Without the comma, the sentence has to be restructured in a way that doesn’t parallel speech effectively.
There’s a Vampire Weekend song titled “Oxford Comma.” The first line is, aptly enough, “Who gives a **** about an Oxford comma?” Maybe this article will give at least one person pause for thought, but I don’t expect every Tom, Dick and Harry to share my stance on the comma.
After all, I’m a comma-lover, and the Associated Press wants nothing to do with it.
Zubair Mukhi is a first-year computer science major. He writes opinion pieces bi-weekly and is really good at procrastinating. He is still learning to play the guitar. He wants to do some film photography sometime and isn’t a grammar snob, regardless of what this article might hint. His favorite color is blue, and he’s run out of interesting things to say for blurbs.