Punctuation generally doesn’t elicit much passion or debate. Then there’s the Oxford comma. Perhaps the most hotly contested punctuation mark of all time, there is no definitive rule regarding its use.
For the uninitiated, the Oxford comma is the comma inserted before the final conjunction (and/or/nor) in a list or series of items.
Here’s a common example: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The red comma before the conjunction and is the Oxford comma.
Without the Oxford comma, the series looks like this: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Detractors say the Oxford comma is superfluous, elitist and a sign of bad writing. Supporters say it adds clarity and consistency.
Divisive linguistic device
Social media platforms erupted in 2011 when it was erroneously reported the University of Oxford style guide was dropping the Oxford comma. One punctuation enthusiast tweeted: “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”
The Twittersphere has similarly erupted over a more recent Oxford comma incident.
Britain’s Royal Mint issued 3 million Brexit commemorative (also called “comma-morative”) coins bearing the slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” on Jan. 31, 2020. Note there is no Oxford comma following “prosperity.”
This omission sparked fury in the UK.
British novelist Philip Pullman tweeted: “The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people.”
An Oxford comma detractor tweeted in response: “I love Philip Pullman but couldn’t disagree more. I loathe the Oxford comma. A comma with a conjunction is grammatically abhorrent.”
It’s ironic these two comma clashes referenced above both transpired on Twitter, the social media platform known for strict character limits.
There’s no doubt this debate will continue amongst English-speaking writers, grammar enthusiasts and editorial style experts the world over.
The Oxford comma leads to heated grammar disputes because the rules regarding its usage are not clear.
The Associated Press does not require the Oxford comma but it also doesn’t prohibit its usage. Same with digital writing software Grammarly. Most newspapers and other media outlets use AP style, as do many corporate communication departments, corporate websites and professional bloggers.
As if this wasn’t confusing enough, some writing style guides require the Oxford comma, such as “The Chicago Manual of Style,” used primarily for longer printed works, such as books.
Because of its start with the news wire and newspapers, AP style focuses on brevity and simpler punctuation, whereas Chicago does not.
Grammarly editor Brittney Ross explained the situation eloquently:
When it comes to the Oxford comma, it’s about personal preference and clarity more than proper grammar or following specific rules. This is partly why Reader’s Digest put the Oxford comma on its list of most confusing grammar rules in the English language.
Note grammarians can’t even agree on terminology. What is commonly known as the Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma or Harvard comma.
Many professional writers agree most sentences that require an Oxford comma for clarity could be remedied via better sentence construction. Aristeen agrees with this logic. We think writing must be concise, especially when it comes to social media and website content.
A recent column in The Federalist put it more bluntly with the headline: Why Using The Oxford Comma Is A Sign Of Bad Writing.
Our guidance regarding the Oxford comma is similar to the advice we offered in our Omit needless words blog post. Keep it short. If you don’t need a comma, don’t use one. It’s that simple.
What comma camp are you in? Let us know!