Updated: Mar 8
Just by using a simple Google search to ask “What is the Oxford comma”, undoubtedly, you will be inundated with at least hundreds of thousands of hits. When using that exact search, actually, there were 6,230,000 results. That’s millions of articles, blogs, book references, and people mentioning this pesky comma. It is not just a hot topic in writing, but in everything from daily usage in a high school English class, to a court case, O’Conner v Oakhurst (Gurnett). It is talked about in startling abundance, but it continues to be an important and topical discussion in language, publishing, and within the study of linguistics, especially in the midst of the Information Age, with the rise of the Internet (which, as a side note, in MLA formatting, Internet is a capitalized noun, in APA and Chicago Styles, it is not) and its newfound significance in today's world (Potter)!
Beginning at the beginning, the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, is the final comma in a list of things. As previously stated, it is a huge debate in the writing world, and editors have a wild time taming writers into remembering the punctuation mark, and when doing so, using it correctly. Why is this such a debated punctuation mark? Most basically, it has to do with the subject matter written, and what style that conforms to.
The modern world of writing may seem like a grammarless wasteland full of informal language, with dropped or incorrectly used punctuation, of missing, or silly words. Perhaps, though, there should be a bit of leeway in discussing language and those types of changes. Some linguists, such as Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet, think that formal language has made a shift in part, perhaps because of “the influence of speech on formal writing”. The fact that as “we write more informally in texts and social media,” so too does language in formal settings change. Language changes constantly, even in the academic and publishing worlds, and while that does not necessarily mean that what comes about in those changes is “correct” or “good”, it does bring some light to the serial comma debate. The nature of language is that it changes; however, writers are definitely allowed to help decide how it changes, and when. That, of course, leads to a discourse on the best style to conform to. In the modern world of publishing, the Oxford comma is important because it largely has to do with lexical disambiguation, which, “in its broadest definition is nothing less than determining the meaning of a word in context” (Edmonds and Anderson 1). Different styles or formats of writing dictate how a writer pencils in that context and clarity - whether or not to use the Oxford comma. The common example format given to explain the Oxford comma’s importance is widely known, but, for the sake of clarity, an example sentence from the Grammarly website is shown below (Edwards):
“I want to thank my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”
The Oxford comma is missing from the sentence, and it makes this sentence have two potential meanings: one, that a person is saying that Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty are their parents, or two, a person could be that they are thanking three individual groups of people. Without the serial comma there, it could mean either, and the reader may be confused.
“I want to thank my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.”
With this example, the meaning is definite and clear, something that publishers and writers really aim to do! This is why it is so important to certain styles of writing, to use that comma. Of course, there is a third option to consider: reordering the sentence, and not using the Oxford comma. Yet again, this is a small part of the point of contention within the academic and professional worlds. Shown here:
“I want to thank Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.”
The Oxford comma debate is evidently going to be a debate here for the long term. Simply put, it is important to be clear in writing, and what constitutes clarity does not mean the same to every writer. Grammarly copy editor Brittney Ross says, “when it comes to AP vs. Chicago style, [...] people forget the importance of the word ‘style’. The [...] thing to remember is when the style isn’t working for you, [...] do what works”; as far as the importance of one style over another, she says “consistency, alongside clarity, [...] should be more important” (Potter). Ultimately, when writing something, whether it be an article, a research paper, or a recipe, the goal is about putting down an idea and connecting to others through that idea. In reaching that goal, writing should be intelligible and understandable to others. So, go forth, write to be understood, and just in case, don’t forget how and when to use the Oxford comma, even if you decline to use it!
Edmonds, Philip, and Anne Anderson. “Disambiguation, Lexical.” Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Elsevier, 2006, p. 1.
Edwards, Anne. “What Is the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma)?” Grammarly, 14 Jan. 2021, www.grammarly.com/blog/what-is-the-oxford-comma-and-why-do-people-care-so-much-about-it/, Accessed 1 Mar, 2021.
First Circuit Court of Appeals. KEVIN O'CONNOR; CHRISTOPHER O'CONNOR; JAMES ADAM COX; MICHAEL FRASER; ROBERT MCNALLY v. OAKHURST DAIRY; DAIRY FARMERS OF AMERICA, INC. 13 Mar. 2017.
Gurnett, Kelly. “Oxford Comma: This Lawsuit Shows Why the Serial Comma Is So Crucial.” The Write Life, 5 Nov. 2020, thewritelife.com/is-the-oxford-comma-necessary/, Accessed 28 Feb, 2021.
McCulloch, Gretchen. “Are Incomplete Sentences the New Thing Or...?” Mental Floss, 1 May 2015, www.mentalfloss.com/article/63237/are-incomplete-sentences-new-thing-or, Accessed 3 Mar, 2021.
Potter, Daniel. “Why Is the Oxford Comma a Heated Debate in 2017?” Grammarly, 7 May 2019, www.grammarly.com/blog/oxford-comma-debate/, Accessed 1 Mar, 2021.