War is raging in many parts of the world. People are starving to death. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis. But, oh my word, do passions come out online over a debate about the oxford comma. There’s even a song called “Who gives a f*** about the oxford comma” (it’s quite catchy, actually, and I have to be careful not to start singing it in front of my children).
It really is a little ridiculous how passionate people can get over what is basically a smudge isn’t it?
Make no mistake about it, I am 100% pro-oxford comma. It drives Jaime bonkers most of the time. (Note from Jaime: I wouldn’t say the Oxford comma rule drives me any more bonkers than any other sort of comma rule.) But I also respect people’s personal style choice. And I have perspective. Sadly, the world we live in gives us many reasons to voice our outrage. While I support the oxford comma, I’m not going to get into a shouting match with anyone over it.
One of our favourite radio shows to tune into is CBC’s The Debaters. So, in true Debater-style, may we present: Be it resolved the Oxford comma does not get the respect it deserves. I’ll take for on this one.
My name is Christine, and I am pro-Oxford comma.
I should pause here and actually explain what the heck an Oxford comma is, for those who may not know.
Also called a serial comma, the Oxford comma is the last comma in a series. So in the following sentence:
On the table was a garden salad, some pita bread, and a bowl of hummus.
The comma before “and a bowl of hummus” is the Oxford comma.
(Random fact: The Oxford comma is not named after Oxford, UK. Many people think it is, but it’s actually named because it was first used by Oxford University Press. It’s also called the Harvard comma.)
Why the Oxford comma matters
In the pretty straight-forward example above, it doesn’t make a difference if you use the Oxford comma or not. If you wrote:
On the table was a garden salad, some pita bread and a bowl of hummus
you would still understand the sentence. My Type A personality twitches at the uneven structure but that’s my issue, not yours.
But consider more complicated sentences, like this one:
The children’s three pieces of art were green and yellow, purple and red and orange and blue.
Riddle me this: Is artwork #3 orange and blue or red and orange and blue or just blue? We don’t know. We’re left to guess. Adding in that Oxford comma saves you from guessing (Won’t someone please think of the children?):
The children’s three pieces of art were green and yellow, purple and red, and orange and blue.
There have been some pretty funny memes floating around Facebook in recent years about the Oxford comma. The JFK/Stalin strippers come to mind. Or the uncertain parentage (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, just google Funny Oxford comma memes, and you’ll soon see).
But not using the Oxford comma can cause more than a laugh (because, really, I’m not anti-laugh here!). It can have pretty serious consequences. A trucking company in Maine might have to fork over millions in overtime pay because of an oxford comma dispute (story here).
Mostly, though, it comes down to making it easier on the reader. In a simple list of bread, eggs, and cheese, nobody will yell at you if you don’t include the Oxford comma (I might twitch though, but I’ve already talked about my Type A-ness). But not all sentences are that simple or short. So, anything you can do to help the reader get the meaning of your sentence is appreciated. Readers are generally lazy, so anything you as a writer can do to make their job reading easier is a good thing.
You don’t want a reader misunderstanding your words, even when it’s funny as all heck.
Is it a geography thing?
It used to be that Americans used the Oxford comma way less than us Canuks or our British friends, but this is becoming less and less true. Many style guides I work with (written in the US) advocate for the Oxford comma, and many of our American clients use it as well. There is no rule based on where you live that determines whether you use Oxford comma. So, while it is a style thing, it has nothing to do with where you hang your hat.
Jaime rolls her eyes at me all the time when I go on my Oxford comma rampage. So, she’ll likely have a few words to say on the matter. But all I know is that:
Growing up in Rollo Bay, PEI, Jaime credits her parents, her Language Arts teacher, and Judy Blume for inspiring her to write her own stories.
is a bit different from:
Growing up in Rollo Bay, PEI, Jaime credits her parents, her Language Arts teacher and Judy Blume for inspiring her to write her own stories.
(I’m pretty sure Judy Blume is not Jaime’s mom, and, for those of you who do not know her as well as I do, her dad was not a teacher either.)
And with that pretty solid evidence in support of the Oxford comma, I hand things over to Jaime…
My name is Jaime, and I don’t really care about the Oxford comma
I find all of this quite funny because it is evident that Chris thinks I feel much more passionately about Oxford commas than I actually do. I do not participate in these fiery online debates she mentioned (Note from Chris: I do not participate in those either because those grammar folks are intense!). But here’s a little story about the Oxford comma and me:
Once upon a time, I had a client for whom I did a substantial amount of writing for (roughly 20 hours per week). This client felt as strongly about the Oxford comma as Christine does, except she was on the opposite side of the debate. It was drilled in to me to AVOID the Oxford comma at all costs because of the American audience (this was circa 2008/2009). It was the same song and dance anytime I had an American client. “WHY DID YOU PUT THAT COMMA THERE YOU FOOLISH CANADIAN?” Canadians of course tend to be much nicer about things, so I don’t recall ever getting any backlash in the other direction.
Anyway, that’s sort of how I learned to use (or not use) the Oxford comma. And I have been hiring editors to look over my writing since 2006, so I honestly just sort of leave that comma tidying up to the professionals at this point. As long as said Oxford comma use is consistent? That’s all that matters.
At the end of the day, I suggest you do what I do and just rely on an editor (perhaps Chris?) and then you’ll never have to worry about this ever again.
And… just to make this post a little more dramatic, I thought I would add that according to Wikipedia (and everyone knows that everything on Wikipedia is true), the Associated Press is against the Oxford Comma. (That will likely send Christine on an adventure to prove that this is untrue. I may even have made it up just to get her going.)
(Note from Chris: I’m not surprised newspapers are anti-Oxford comma…I’m pretty sure the CP [Canadian Press] is, too. Newspapers like things being as concise as possible, saving space and ink and all that jazz. This does not shock me or send me into a rampage. Chicago Manual of Style though, which is used by many organizations and is, obviously, written in the States “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage” (see section 6.19). American Psychological Association (APA) Style Guide, used primarily by researchers and academics, also wants you to use the Oxford comma.)
(Second note from Chris: Talking about the Oxford comma makes me sound like a pretentious twit. I’m off to get my nose out of the clouds now…)
So, who won?
What do you think, friends? Are you pro-Oxford comma, anti-Oxford comma, or ambivalent? Leave us a note in the comments below!
Until next time, let us say what the serial comma has joined together, let no Manley Mann put asunder.
[JLM1]In the example below, there are two commas, though?