After winning “America’s Next Top Model,” Jessica thanked her parents, God and Tyra Banks. I wish my parents were God and Tyra Banks.
You can avoid an embarrassing mistake like this by using the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma occurs before the “and” in the following sentence: I like dogs, cats, and birds.
There are a few main reasons to use it. In my view, it comes down to better communication and visual consistency.
The sentence, “I like dogs, cats, and birds” looks visually correct because there is a comma after “dogs,” so there should be a comma after “cats,” too. It also prompts the reader to take a small pause before moving onto the next word.
Further, using the Oxford comma ensures there is no miscommunication.
I’ve always wondered why it’s called the Oxford comma. I’ve always used it in my writing. Learning AP Style, which loathes commas, has been a challenge as a comma-happy English major.
“Other than the period, the comma is the most common punctuation mark in English,” according to Dictionary.com.
Scribendi, an editing and proofreading company, attributes the first use of the modern comma to Aldus Manutius, a 15th century Italian printer. However, the Oxford comma wasn’t recognized until 1912 when Frederick Howard Collins, a British indexer and writer, first mentioned it in his book, “Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists.”
It was still not referred to as the Oxford comma until 1978 when author Peter Sutcliffe wrote about it in “The Oxford University Press: An Informal History.” In Sutcliffe’s book, he names it the Oxford comma because Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press in the late 19th century to early 20th century, wrote a style guide for Oxford employees to use. The style guide advised against the use of it.
The main reason I’ve heard why the Oxford comma was historically avoided was so early printing presses could save paper.
This is confirmed in Harvey R. Levenson’s paper, “Hidden Influences on Clear Communication—From Punctuation to Technology…How Business Decisions Impact Print,” published in the June 2015 International Journal of Linguistics and Communication.
Levenson, PhD at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California, wrote, “the [Oxford] comma was removed to save space… to help [printing companies] cut costs to increase profits.”
Alright, so the comma was banned from use to save money. A tiny mark makes that big of a difference.
Cool, so then do people think there is any other reason to refrain from using it?
“People then started rationalizing its removal for other reasons. However, the reality is that its removal was a ‘bottom-line’ cost-saving business decision,” Levenson’s article says.
Researching reasons to NOT use the Oxford comma came up rather dry, but I went ahead and gave the few articles a fair shot.
A 2013 Business Insider article rejects its use, calling it “extremely overrated.”
The article argues if there is ambiguity in a sentence, the sentence should be rephrased. It said the Oxford comma is a “waste of space” and it interrupts the flow of a sentence.
A 2017 blog post, “I Hate the Oxford Comma: Why You Don’t Need the Oxford Comma” by blogger Sara Woznicki agrees with this perspective, arguing that people should write better sentences so Oxford commas are unnecessary.
I, too, am a fan of the is/ought fallacy, but we need to be realistic.
The Oxford comma mirrors the way people actually speak. If you say, “I love my dogs, pizza and chocolate,” out loud, you will naturally not take a pause before you say, “and chocolate,” leading someone to think your dogs are named Pizza and Chocolate. If you say, “I love my dogs, pizza, and chocolate,” out loud, you will naturally pause before “and chocolate,” leaving no room for miscommunication.
Miscommunications are usually just annoying, but they can sometimes lead to monetary losses. A 2017 New York Times article wrote of a court case in Portland, Maine, where a state law omitted an Oxford comma in the following policy, which exempted overtime rules in the case of:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”
This led to three employees at a dairy company suing for denied overtime pay, since there was no comma before “or distribution.” The employees, delivery truck drivers, effectively argued the law could be construed to exempt those who pack and distribute, but not those who just distribute.
Further, a comma after each item in a list ensures visual consistency. If you write, “postal carriers deliver in rain, snow, sleet and hail,” it is natural to expect a comma after “sleet.” I don’t have a great argument for this except it just looks right.
Using the Oxford comma is the best way to ensure your audience understands your meaning. Miscommunications can cost millions and result in humiliation, misunderstandings or worse. The sentence, “we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin,” is a prime example. Nobody wants to see JFK and Stalin stripping.