The Case For The Oxford Comma

The use of the Oxford Comma was considered standard and acceptable English grammar for as long as there have been commas. As a reminder, the Oxford Comma is used where there are three or more items separated by commas. The Oxford Comma is the final comma that appears before the conjunction. For example, “I went downtown with Tom, Dick, and Harry.” That last comma is known as the Oxford Comma.

When I was young and still in school, I was taught to use the Oxford Comma, but before my school days ended, I was told I no longer needed to. So now there are people on both side of this fence. I am definitely on the pro-Oxford side of things.

The Reason for Omitting

The argument is that the Oxford comma is unnecessary and redundant. The conjunction implies everything the comma declares. It’s like signaling in a turn only lane (even though legally you are still supposed to signal then).

But the idea to remove the Oxford Comma did not come about by scholarly refection. It was the notion of publishers and printers. Back in the day when printing real estate was prime it cost as much to print a comma as it did a question mark. So in order to save money, publishers all agreed that they could save money by removing all of the Oxford Commas from print.

This means that the reason for omitting the Oxford Comma came not from scholars, but publishers. The motivation to strike out this rule did not originate with style, but with saving money. Should this be the standard that determines rules for writing? And in our times when there is no extra cost to printing a comma, this obstacle is obsolete.

The Reason Why

The Oxford Comma has been standard English since King Harold. Despite its British name, the Oxford Comma predates the English language. And there is no real linguistic reason to change it.

But when you think about it, there is a clear reason to keep it. Consider the sentence, “I went to the store and saw my school teacher, a hypochondriac, and a kleptomaniac.” This sentence uses the Oxford Comma, and because it does there is no doubt that the person speaking is talking about three different people. Take Oxford Comma out and look at what happens: “I went to the store and saw my school teacher, a hypochondriac and a kleptomaniac.” This could refer to three people, but it could also be read that the teacher is both a hypochondriac and a kleptomaniac.

Loot at another example: “Sitting in the Oval Office is Ronald Reagan, George Bush, a wizard, and a leprechaun.” This sentence with the Oxford Comma makes it obvious that there are four people sitting in the Oval Office. Now let’s remove the Oxford Comma and see what happens: “Sitting in the Oval Office is Ronald Reagan, George Bush, a wizard and a leprechaun.” While this may describe four people, it could also picture two. This sentence makes Reagan out to be a wizard and Bush a leprechaun.

Simply put, the problem of omitting the Oxford Comma is confusion and ambiguity. Sentences with the Oxford Comma are clear. The use of it is historic. There are no reasons regarding language to exclude it. The best reason to cut out the Oxford Comma is based on publishers and their bottom line. That is not compelling enough. Let’s keep the Oxford Comma and make it our standard use until it becomes the universally accepted norm once more.


Filed under Creative Writing

3 responses to “The Case For The Oxford Comma

  1. Neal, thanks for the history lesson. I have been laboring under the confusing notion that both are correct, and that I should only change a sentence if it is absolutely necessary. However, I find this policy confusing and challenging. Now that I know, I will use and advocate for the Oxford Comma consistently.

  2. Pingback: In Defence of the Oxford Comma | Authordom, or There About

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