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Ben there done that

Punctuation controversy: the Oxford comma

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You have likely heard about the Oxford comma at least once. As a writer, using it is a habit I have grown quite fond of. There is something about that little extra comma in a list that just feels right to write; however, since starting my column, I have learned that this practice is not welcome everywhere. 

The Associated Press style guide, used by newspapers for style uniformity, doesn’t allow the regular use of the Oxford comma as a way to remove nonessential items and to save space. Despite my best efforts to eliminate them, Karen, our amazing editor, still routinely catches a few in my writing and deletes them to stick with style guidelines.  

What is the Oxford comma? It is a comma used right after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items; for example: “The calendar includes the months June, July, and August.” The comma after “July” is an Oxford comma. 

In 1905, Horace Hart, the printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915, wrote “Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers.” This is the first documented instance of the Oxford comma being used as a component of a style, so Hart was credited with its creation. 

The comma went on without a name until 1978 when the term “Oxford comma” was coined by Peter Stutcliff in his book “The Oxford University Press: An Informal History” after the famous university where it was first incorporated into a style; however, Stutcliff credited F. Howard Collins and his 1912 book “Author’s & Printer’s Dictionary: A Guide for Authors” with the creation of the comma. Nevertheless, in the passage, Stutcliff cites that Collins seeks the support of Hart and hints that he is the creator. This has led to a bit of controversy about who really is behind its creation. I am inclined to believe Hart created the comma on the grounds that he documented the comma seven years earlier than Collins. We will likely never know for certain one way or the other. There simply isn’t enough documented evidence to definitively say. The other possibility is the comma might have been routinely used long before anyone documented it. 

Why is the Oxford comma important? Well, the stated purpose is to clear up ambiguity and make sentences, specifically ones with lists, easier to understand. In 2017, a $5 million class-action lawsuit against a dairy company in Maine hinged on the fact that a specific law about worker compensation didn’t use an Oxford comma when one would have been very useful in clarification. 

Critics of the Oxford comma say that through the use of good sentence structure and word choice one doesn’t need to add any extra clarification and the very nature of the conjunctions “and” and “or” do not require a comma because the comma is implied with their usage. 

Many of the academic and collegiate styles like Chicago, APA, MLA, and AMA styles all encourage the use of Oxford commas. Journalistic styles like AP tend to discourage its use unless the reader would misinterpret the sentence without it. Ironically, the University of Oxford Style Guide, the birthplace of the Oxford comma, now discourages its usage. This use-only-when-needed stance, which many styles have adopted, poses a conundrum: how does a writer know when a reader will misinterpret a sentence? Short answer, they don’t really.  

In my opinion, the writer should clarify the meaning of a sentence if a reader could misinterpret it, and the sporadic use of commas may lead to more misunderstandings. I am a proponent of the Oxford comma if it isn’t hurting communication and serves to further clarify the meaning; although, I will stick with AP style as required.


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