Is the Oxford Comma Dead or Is It Still Relevant?

The relevance of Oxford Comma is a popular discussion in the writing world. Many writers love the Oxford Comma and use it all the time when needed while others don’t. The Oxford Comma sometimes becomes a debate between writers and inspires blog posts, tweets, pop songs, and memes. For instance, “Weird Al” Yankovic mentions the Oxford Comma in his parody song Word Crimes. Who knew such a little punctuation marking can cause such a commotion?

Even if you don’t know what the Oxford Comma is just by hearing its name, I guarantee you have used it in the past. You may even know the Oxford Comma as the Harvard or Serial Comma. In primary schools today, students are taught how to use the Oxford comma but aren’t familiar with the name. The use of the Oxford Comma is typically taught on the second-grade level. Many students use it until they find out later that they no longer need to use it.

The history of the Oxford Comma becomes important to understand how it got its name. There is much debate whether Fredrick Howard Collins or Horace Hart created the Oxford Comma. Horace Hart wrote about the Oxford Comma in his book Horace’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905. However, Collins is assumed to have created the Oxford Comma in the late 19th century because the first use of it was accredited to Collins by Peter H. Sutcliffe’s 1978 book The Oxford University Press: An Informal History. Because Sutcliffe wrote the history of the Oxford University Press, he named the Oxford Comma after it.

The Oxford Comma is one of the few rules that writers don’t have to follow. It is more of a stylistic choice rather than following a universal rule of grammar, such as the rule that a noun and verb are required to make a complete sentence. Some style guides don’t require the use of the Oxford Comma, but there are exceptions. AP Style writing requires the use of the Oxford Comma. Someone who would typically write in AP style is a newspaper reporter.

The Oxford Comma is the final comma in a list of three or more things in a sentence, which goes before the “and” or “or” in a sentence. It is better to use the Oxford Comma if you are writing an essay for school or something that will be published and read by others. The purpose of the Oxford Comma is to provide clarity when talking about a set of three or more things that are separate but are grouped together.

If you decide not to use the Oxford Comma, you might find yourself changing the meaning of the sentence and causing some strange misunderstandings. In some cases, writing a list while omitting the Oxford Comma doesn’t cause confusion. The sentence below is a good example of properly omitting an Oxford Comma.

“I need you to go to the grocery store to buy eggs, bread, butter and milk.”

This sentence is pretty well understood that there are four items the person needs to buy at the store.

When omitting the Oxford Comma, it sometimes looks like you are giving more clarity to the first item in the list. The sentence below shows an example of a possible misunderstanding when omitting the Oxford Comma.

“I had eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast.”

Some people might read this sentence and think that the orange juice is on the toast or the toast is in the orange juice. The Oxford Comma clears up this misunderstanding.

“I had eggs, toast, and orange juice for breakfast.”

Some people who don’t like using the Oxford Comma can argue that the list of things can be rearranged, which makes the Oxford Comma unnecessary. Below is a possible confusing sentence.

“I love my parents, Martha and God.”

This sentence causes some confusion because people might think your parents are Martha Stewart and God instead of three separate things. An Oxford Comma could be placed after “Martha Stewart.”

“I love my parents, Martha, and God.”

This sentence can be easily arranged so that the it could be clearly understood without having to use the Oxford Comma.

“I love Martha, God and my parents.”

The Oxford Comma is all about your personal preference unless your work requires you to work in AP style which encourages its use for clarity. The Oxford Comma is a fun topic of conversation for writers and they’ll tell you what they think if you ask them. Sometimes reading sentences without the Oxford Comma can be extremely funny. There is one thing to remember when writing: If you decide to use or not use the Oxford Comma, you need to stay consistent with your writing throughout. Try using the Oxford Comma today if you don’t already.  You might find it to be helpful, instructive, and to improve the clarity of your message.