What’s All the Fuss About the Oxford Comma?

The band Vampire Weekend is known for one of its hits in which lead singer Ezra Koenig sings the refrain, “Who gives a *&!# about an Oxford comma?” As it turns out, Ezra, quite a few people do.

The Oxford comma, or serial comma as it’s sometimes known, is used before the “and” in a list of three or more things. For example, in the sentence “I like dogs, cats, and rabbits.” It earned its name because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

And while this may seem like a pretty benign topic, it’s hotly contested among many writers. In 2011, when it was incorrectly reported that the Oxford comma had been deleted from the Oxford University Press style guide, there was uproar. It wasn’t true, of course. Instead, it was the university’s branding team who’d dreamt up a new (misguided) guide of their own.

No other punctuation mark elicits such passion or division among writers and editors. In essence, its usage is stylistic, so it’s really up to you whether you use it or not. Journalists, ever concerned with space and brevity, barely give it the time of day. While you’ll find it in the Oxford University Press style guide, you won’t find it in the Associated Press.

Proponents of the Oxford comma make the fair point that it provides clarification. Consider the following sentence: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Beyonce and Jay Z.” Without the Oxford comma, it implies the writer’s parents are Beyonce and Jay Z. With the comma, it’s clearly a list: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Beyonce, and Jay Z.” Those who oppose it, however, say you can avoid confusion by simply rephrasing the sentence: “This book is dedicated to Beyonce, Jay Z and my parents.”

The use of the Oxford comma so far hasn’t been a matter of life and death. But, in a case that had grammarphiles the world over pinned to their seats in 2017, a group of truck drivers in Maine won a class-action lawsuit because the lack of the comma made part of the state’s overtime laws too ambiguous.

So, whether you’re a fan or not, the Oxford comma isn’t going away anytime soon. But in the words of author Lynne Truss (who wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves), “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

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