There’s a little punctuation mark out there that has caused a lot of grief in the form of red ink. It has divided the world’s most prominent journalists, has caused copy editor’s hands to shrivel up, and has fueled heated arguments between stubborn English majors and their professors. It is…the Oxford comma.
Everyone seems to have an opinion, and usually a strong one, regarding whether or not the Oxford comma belongs in a sequence. To the “outside world,” it may seem like a trivial matter, but when your job requires countless hours of copy editing and copy writing, proper comma usage is life or death. Not really, but sometimes it feels that way.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term “Oxford comma,” chances are you’re familiar with the concept. Here’s a simple demonstration:
The Oxford Comma: Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “A comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’.”
Sentence 1: I love my parents, George, and Susie.
Sentence 2: I love my parents, George and Susie.
In this example, sentence 1 states that I love my parents along with two other people named George and Susie. In sentence 2, the omission of the Oxford comma changes the meaning to be that my parents’ names are George and Susie. This example shows how the omission of the Oxford comma can change the meaning of the sentence entirely and can create ambiguity. Those who oppose the Oxford comma might claim that simple rephrasing or a one-time exception can fix this rare issue, while Oxford comma advocates would rather stick to the rules they learned in school and simply insert a comma.
The Universal Argument
The most regarded and widely used style guide in America, AP Style Guide, omits the serial comma. So then, since AP Style is the “bible” of the publishing world, wouldn’t you assume everyone would be bound by its rules? For the most part, yes. Except for the Oxford comma. “Thou shalt not use the Oxford comma” is one commandment Americans keep breaking. Thankfully, there are no severe punishments, other than experiencing the contempt of an anti-Oxford comma activist.
The popular online data lab, FiveThirtyEight.com, surveyed 1,129 Americans about their preference. The results were fairly even, but pro-Oxford comma users came out on top, representing 57 percent of the vote, whereas, 43 percent opposed the extra comma.
What about DMI?
To be honest, the personal opinions in our office are split and the debate continues, but DMI sticks to using the Oxford comma in all of its publications. The author of this blog post, however, came from a journalism background where she learned to detest the “unnecessary” punctuation mark. But while she was adapting to DMI’s comma usage ways, she slowly grew fond of the little comma; in fact, she began to miss it when it was gone. Now, adding in the Oxford comma where it has previously been omitted in a document gives her a sense of accomplishment (you must be thinking copy editors don’t get out much).
We may never know when or how the Oxford comma debate will end. While it seems AP Style has already won the battle by setting the rules for the rest of us, there are too many rebels out there (like us!) breaking precedence.
Let us know why you use or don’t use the Oxford comma.