Ending the Oxford Comma Debate

It's time to accept that the Oxford comma is more modern and uniformly helpful

Ending the Oxford Comma Debate

We live in an era where everything is debatable, as if debate itself is the goal. Even the most trivial issues can become fodder for endless debate — Star Wars vs. Star Trek; Kirk vs. Picard; Pepsi vs. Coke; could Jack have fit on the door with Rose?; and, did Han shoot first?

Answers are necessary, resolution required. Resolving debates and moving forward is a sign of mental health and social progress. Being stuck in endless debates about any of the above is akin to spiraling into insanity, which means the answers exist — Star Trek; tie; Coke; yes, obviously; and, yes, which is why his story arc is about redemption.

Grammar's great divide: The Oxford comma - TED-Ed - YouTube

Lately, I’ve been coming across books and articles that exclude the Oxford or serial comma from series of three or more items. The Associated Press and Canadian Press style guides both have strictures against Oxford commas, recommending it only be introduced when necessary for clarity of meaning. Even the University of Oxford’s PR department’s styleguide recommended against the Oxford comma in its 2011 revision.

Such rules are most often stated as a dictum, with no rationale. For instance, the University of Oxford’s public relations department abandoned the eponymous comma in 2011, stating in its rogue guide:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used — especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:

The Canadian Press Stylebook expresses its shameful policy this way:

Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, unless that avoids confusion.

The Associated Press takes a similar stance.

I guess you could argue that, in a way, these rules mean you should use the Oxford comma all the time, because using it always avoids confusion and resolve ambiguity, as we’ll see below.

The general rationale for eliminating serial commas from newspapers arises from the narrow columns and savings in lead typesetting costs of old. But are these applicable in the Digital Age?

Fortunately, the Chicago Manual of Style preserves the serial comma, and most in our ranks follow that source.

To end the debate, here are all the reasons why keeping the Oxford comma is eminently sensible:

  1. We shouldn’t make readers wonder if we’re splitting hairs. Reading should be a fluid transfer of thoughts from the page or screen into the internal voice of the reader. When editors are splitting hairs over “clarity of meaning” when it comes to basic punctuation patterns, they’re going to give readers something to think about, which will yank them from the text. Reading shouldn’t create an awareness of the words, but transfer the thoughts. If your use of serial commas is variable, it’s distracting. It breaks the spell of reading. The standard of “use when necessary” is a disservice to smooth reading and galloping comprehension. It’s a reader-antagonistic standard, especially for news organizations and journalism, since rapid uptake and consistent clarity are priorities. Eliminating the serial comma is unfriendly to readers.
  2. The “space saving” argument is from a bygone era. Style guides seeking to eliminate the Oxford comma tend to come from news sources, which have a history of seeking to save both hot lead costs (Linotype or typesetting was expensive) and space (columns were narrow). Eliminating a few hundred commas per day could save meaningful money and space. However, those strictures are largely a vestige of the past. Most news reaches people online. Eliminating Oxford commas is a vestige of the print past, and it’s time for these style guides to move into the modern age. If you want to save ink, eliminate the dots over i’s next time.
  3. Commas are not scarce or expensive. Why be stingy when it comes to commas? To save ink? To save pixels? To save keystrokes? Look at this inventory of commas I have: ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,. This is just the tip of the iceberg — I have trillions more where those came from. There’s even a key on your keyboard that magically draws on my vast supply, instantly. Best of all, it cost me nothing to provide you with all those commas, so I’m willing to donate them — and replenish this supply — endlessly. Take as you see fit. Use them in serial comma construction. Enjoy.

Serial commas keep reading rhythm. As humans, we’re subconsciously aware of the breathing around words, even when reading silently. When you came across the word “breathing,” you probably stretched that word out as you read it, and you were glad there was a comma soon after, so you could breathe. We like a cadence that allows our internal narrator to breathe, anticipate changes in voice, and see the ends of sentences coming our way. These things are interrelated. Excluding serial commas makes it harder for our internal voice to relax and follow the rhythm of writing.

Here are the last three sentences above, with one serial comma missing:

We like a cadence that allows our internal narrator to breathe, anticipate changes in voice and see the ends of sentences coming our way. These things are all interrelated. Excluding serial commas makes it harder for our internal voice to relax and follow the rhythm of writing.

I’ll bet that was a little more distracting to read. You stumbled just a hair, right? Punctuation is largely about giving prose both sense and rhythm. A period is a longer pause than a semicolon, which is a longer pause than a comma, which is a longer pause than a space. These pauses are meaningful, and can be used to infuse language with rhetorical and, sometimes, poetic rhythm. The structures that benefit from the serial comma are mostly logical structures, funneling down, with each step demarcated by a comma. Removing the last one ruins a useful, familiar, and often lovely punctuation ladder.

  1. Missing Oxford commas have created confusion that cost millions. In Maine a few years ago, a missing Oxford comma cost Oakhurst Dairy millions in overtime pay when worker sued under Maine’s laws, which read, in part, “. . . people involved in the canning, processing, preserving, freezing,  drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of . . .” various food items are exempt from overtime pay. However, due to the lack of a serial comma before “or distribution,” which would have made that a separate act (“distribution of”), the judge ruled that the employer owed overtime for hours spent packing things that would later be distributed. The State of Maine’s styleguide factored in, as it stated that the Oxford comma should not be used except when clarity is essential, a caveat the judge took into account when the workers argued that clarity was achieved without the comma — after all, it would have been there if that’s what they’d meant, given their strictures. Habitual use of the Oxford comma would have made the intention clear, while differential use created confusion and maybe a mistake. Oxford commas are always clarifying.

In the end, there’s no reason to not use Oxford or serial commas. They add clarity, allow readers to relax, and help shape the breath of words. They use little space, the space concerns of journalism are a bygone of the print era, and the space they use is well-justified.

Let’s move on, with the Oxford comma at our side, providing clarity, certainty, and cadence.

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