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The Oxford comma: Do you or don’t you?

The Oxford comma: Do you or don’t you? 5.00/5 (100.00%) 5 votes

by Nancy J Price

It’s inspired Facebook groups, exasperated countless writers and editors, and probably fueled more than a couple divorces: the Oxford comma.

Otherwise known as the serial comma, this seemingly-innocuous punctuation mark inspires both ardor and hatred, depending on whether you’re for or against using the thing.

With serial comma: “I like dogs, cats, and fish.”

Without serial comma: “I like dogs, cats and fish.”

That’s right — the little , differentiating those two sentences is the subject of an all-out battle.

CerroGordo-comma-wars-oxford-comma

The Oxford comma: Yes or no?

Below, ten word workers weigh in on the punctuation debate.

A strange, illogical planet

“I’m going to tell you something — I almost lost my mind without the serial comma. Suddenly, the world stopped making sense. Its absence changed my meaning, but it only seemed to change for me. Everyone else said it made sense. I was an alien on a strange, illogical planet.” – S Zainab Williams in A Rant on the Serial Comma, at S.Z.W.ordsmith

The Oxford comma has no style

“The Oxford comma has no style. It may be technical, but it’s not stylish. And when has English ever been a technical language? Or one that is controlled by an academy? Never. It serves its users, not the academy (or the AP, or the MLA or the Chicago Manual among others). It just goes out and works for a living, adapting to the times.” – Eric von Mizener in Why I Dislike the Oxford Comma (Confessions of a Grammar Fashionista)

Habit and tradition

“Why do some writers hang onto a practice that the rest of the literate world either never heard of or rejects? Habit and tradition. Nothing else, and nothing better.” – Paula LaRocque in Restoring the serial comma

Neither confusing nor incomprehensible

“For what it’s worth, The Economist does not use the Oxford comma. We are called many things, but ‘confusing’ and ‘incomprehensible’ are not among the most common.” RLG in Oxford comma, still with us, from The Economist

Would sadden me beyond words

“And yet, even the rumbling of a distant threat to the Oxford comma (or ‘serial comma’) turns me instantly into an NFL referee, blowing my whistle and improvising some sort of signal — perhaps my hands clasped to my own head as if in pain — to indicate that the loss of the serial comma would sadden me beyond words.” – Linda Holmes in Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe… For Now, at NPR

Trifling prevails and arguments persist

“Never before has so much ink been spilled over such an unworthy, diminutive thing as the Oxford comma. Now more than ever, I advise against it as the digital world is putting character count at a premium in Tweets, text ads and tiny display ads. However, trifling prevails and arguments persist.” - John Copponex in A Comma Misconception, from the Nebo Agency blog

Clear, unambiguous language

“There are various aesthetic and technical arguments for why serial commas should or should not be used. Although they aren’t required in journalistic writing, a distinct advantage of using serial commas is clear, unambiguous language, which is a necessity in scientific writing.” - David Becker in Using Serial Commas, from the American Psychological Association Style Blog

Smacks of smug pedantry

“So, honours even on the making-sense front. But, on the grounds of simplicity and beauty, the Oxford comma loses out. Its absence makes a sentence less cluttered and more pleasing to the eye… The truth is, the Oxford comma — fiddly, correct but followed only by a clever minority — smacks of smug pedantry.” – Harry Mount in Let’s put a full stop to the Oxford comma, from The Telegraph

About the strippers, JFK and Stalin

“Despite what some people claim, the Oxford comma is not inherently more logical or less ambiguous than the alternative,” says Joe Kessler about the widely-circulated “stripper, JFK and Stalin” graphic (drawn by Anne Ferguson).

oxford-comma-stalin-jfkWith the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

Without the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

“A writer seeking to avoid possible alternate readings should write in such a way that all unwanted ambiguity is removed. This does not always require using the Oxford comma, but it does not require always avoiding its use either.”

In the Glendale News-PressJune Casagrande, author of It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences, offers another angle on the whole rulers-in-fishnets thing: “Change the first noun phrase from plural ‘the strippers’ to singular ‘the stripper’ and you’ll see why: In ‘The stripper, JFK, and Stalin,’ the serial comma, instead of preventing confusion, is causing confusion. It’s creating the possibility that JFK is an appositive of ‘the stripper.’ That would mean he is a stripper. Omitting the serial comma would preclude that possibility. We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.”

So does that mean she’s voting yea or nay? “It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent,” Casagrande says, and adds, ” Just don’t believe that either side has cornered the market on preserving JFK’s dignity.”

Are you a friend or foe of the serial comma? Post your views below in the comments, then take our poll: Oxford comma: Love or hate?


Nancy co-founded SheKnows.com in 1999, and helped turn it into one of the top lifestyle websites for women. While serving as the site’s Executive Editor for twelve years, Nancy also helped launch five national newsstand magazines. A fourth-generation San Francisco Bay Area native, Nancy now lives in Arizona with her four kids and their menagerie. Dream of Time – her first novel – is available now, and you can see more from her online at nancyjprice.com.

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