The Oxford Comma

I have been reading Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” comic for many years.  When he stopped drawing and publishing, there was a huge void in my daily comic section of the paper.  But he’s back to drawing and making pithy pronouncements about our crazy politicized world, and I’m a happy reader.  Part of his return to publication and syndication included an ongoing storyline about Opus and Bill the Cat running for president.  Their platform?  The importance of the two spaces after a period.  It reminds me of another ongoing formatting and grammatical argument: The Oxford Comma.

The Oxford Comma: Just use it!Some people may not even know what the Oxford comma is, but others, like myself, know what it is and further, insist upon its use.  While journalists and some other standard-makers insist the Oxford comma is not necessary anymore, I would posit that it should be used at all times.  Yes, it saves a little ink and one typespace, to not use it.  But nothing is clearer than using that little comma to separate things in a list.

If you don’t know what the Oxford comma is, it is the use of a final comma before the last item in a comma-deliniated list.  I had toast, eggs, and orange juice for breakfast.  I had to choose between a black dress, a purple pantsuit, and a yellow mumu.  Of course all of these sentences can be written without that final comma.  But there are times that final comma is really necessary.  And if you are writing a lot, it is best to keep in the habit of using that third comma.  That way you never leave it out when you should have left it in, because your habit was not to use it.

I know there are arguments on either side of the issue.  People can have strong feelings about it, and can have loud arguments about it.  Like most things where there are two potential answers that are both correct (Does the toilet paper roll go over or under?  Is that dress black and blue, or gold and white?), people can come down pretty hard on “their side” and be unable to see the other side.  I am no different.  I am going to insist on the Oxford comma, no matter what.  And when I was still teaching English (before the Internet), I insisted on the Oxford comma.  I think it makes things very clear, with no ambiguity, to use it.  And I’m close to militant about it, no matter what style guides are trying to tell me to do.

In other words, you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.  Also, those two spaces after the period?  Yup, those need to stay, too. Naturally.

How do you feel about the Oxford comma?  Do you use it religiously, or only when a list wouldn’t make sense without it?  What arguments have you heard either way for its use or abandonment?  Let me know in the comments!


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12 thoughts on “The Oxford Comma

  1. Although I remember using it in school (I majored in journalism.) I have since dropped it except when it’s necessary to have the sentence make sense. It doesn’t really doesn’t bother me one way or another. But I have other issues. It drive me crazy that now we don’t use single quotation marks to designate dialogue within dialogue but use italics. And I’ve seen dialogue shown with a single quotation mark and so on. So that’s my pet peeve.

    • I don’t know that I’ve seen that, but it would bug me too! My day job involves turning print text into electronic text for students with visual disabilities. My pet peeve is books published overseas – English or others that are written/pubished in English. There’s the annoyance of “flavour” instead of “flavor,” but the biggest difference is how they use quotation marks. Double marks don’t exist. Everything is a single quotation mark, even those that are embedded. SO confusing!

  2. if i had to choose between a black dress and a purple pant suit and yellow mumu, it would be the purple and yellow every time.

    without the comma, the last two items in a list are always tied together. this alters meaning whether the writer intends it or not. i’m a building code official, and the code uses a style guide that apparently says to use the oxford comma only when necessary. the result is inconsistent language and a lot of unclear passages.

    inconsistency in writing is sloppy and unprofessional. if you want to save characters, edit. most of what i read on the internet these days could easily be cut by half.

  3. Absolutely use it! Use all punctuation marks–they are God’s gifts to readers. I wish we were allowed to use parentheses and semi-colons in fiction for added clarity. I’m sure everyone here has read it, but if by some wild chance you haven’t, get Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves.

    • Our editors do hold the final sway. I think they are more concerned in journalism, than in most editing houses for fiction. That Oxford comma really does make everything clear.

  4. I use it for clarity, but frankly think it would be better just to put the thing in there every time and be done with it. I’m more upset by the elimination of the semi-colon, which I believe is sometimes a necessary evil. Also, it drove me crazy to put all foreign words in italics rather than following Chicago Manual of Style, which I was told to do by my editor.

  5. Sorry to come to this so late. Being a Brit, I was brought up not to use the ‘Oxford’ comma. However, being published in the US, I was advised by my editor for my next novel to use it – so I do. It seemed a bit strange at first, but I soon got used to it. I agree it does help to make a sentence clearer. No so sure about the two spaces after a period. Having been trained in touch typing on a typewriter, for years I’ve used the two spaces. However, since the standard now is for a single space, I’ve retrained myself and at last managed to get myself out of the habit. I’d hate to have to go back to two spaces again! I’m also sorry about the demise of the semi-colon. I think a lot of the problem is people just don’t know how to use it correctly, and end up overusing it. Great post, Susabelle.

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