Going to Bat for the Oxford Comma

Going to Bat for the Oxford Comma

MLA, APA, Chicago, Turabian. There are a lot of best practices and formatting guides out there. They don’t necessarily agree with each other and it’s not always clear which is best in which situations. Often it comes down to personal preference, as it does for the hotly debated punctuation mark I’ll be discussing today.

The Oxford Comma

In a sentence with a list of items, you’ll sometimes see a comma before the “and” preceding the last item. And sometimes you won’t.

Example:

“I like talking about color, fonts, and grammar.”

vs “I like talking about color, fonts and grammar.”

It seems pretty insignificant, right? As readers of the English language, we don’t see any difference in the meaning of that sentence. So why the debate?

Commas for Clarity

Sloppy Lists

If you’ve read a couple posts in these parts you’ll know I’m no grammar Nazi. I have a bad habit of writing run-ons, and I enjoy a stylistic sentence fragment every now and again. I’ve also noticed that when I write sentences involving lists, I often “group” things together that are similar.

Example:

“I like talking about color, fonts and typefaces, and grammar.”

In this example, excluding the Oxford comma would be confusing and make the sentence look even sloppier than it is already.

Unclear Intent

Grammarly has an even better example, which I’ll quote here:

“I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

In this case, the lack of comma doesn’t just make the sentence look sloppy; it’s confusing. Your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty?! No wonder you’re such an egghead (sorry – couldn’t resist).

Grammarly goes on to say that confusing sentences can be rewritten to avoid this confusion (in this case listing them in this order: “Humpty Dumpty, Lady Gaga and my parents”) but I’d like to make the case that it’s not always possible. And that it can even be costly.

Oxford Commas in the News

That’s right, it’s not just a personal debate anymore. According to the NY Times, a Maine dairy company was involved in a lawsuit about grammar.

Quick summary: state laws were written in such a way that it could be, and was, interpreted different ways by different parties. The difference? $10 million.

So I’d like to entreat everyone to at least consider adopting the Oxford comma. After all, the consequences of using it are nonexistent, while the consequences of not using it can be rather extreme. Is personal preference really worth millions of dollars?