The Oxford Comma: Yes, No, Or Who Cares?

May 25, 2022

The Oxford comma represents the rare example of a debate among grammar nerds that has spilled over into pop culture – at least a little bit.

From Vampire Weekend beginning a song with the pressing question of “Who gives a f— about an Oxford comma?” to a court case whose outcome hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma, few questions of grammar have captured the popular imagination like the debate over the appropriate usage (or lack thereof) of this one little punctuation mark.

First, let’s examine exactly what the Oxford comma – also called the Harvard comma and serial comma – is, which is more confusing to explain than understand through an example. The debate over the Oxford comma revolves around whether to include a comma before a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items.

Here’s an easier way of thinking about it: Does the last comma belong in the following sentence? “The fruit bowl included apples, bananas, and oranges.” Oxford comma supporters would say that it does.

Adding to the debate, some of the top “authorities” on writing offer differing opinions on the Oxford comma, with the Chicago Manual of Style recommending it, and AP Style generally opposing it, except for cases in which omitting it would lead to confusion or misinterpretation.

And that is what really gets us to the crux of this debate. Grammar is about clarity, not memorizing seemingly arbitrary rules to separate “right” from “wrong” in writing. Here, the often cited Ayn Rand example can be instructive.

Consider the sentence: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

In this case, the lack of Oxford comma seems to indicate that the writer’s parents are (somehow) Ayn Rand and God, while inclusion of the Oxford comma would more clearly illustrate that the writer is referring to three distinct entities.

To me, this seems to be the most compelling argument for the Oxford comma, while most arguments against it claim that it is often “unnecessary and pointless.” Indeed, in some cases the Oxford comma may be unnecessary, but because it doesn’t detract from the quality of writing or its clarity, I advocate for its usage.

Ultimately, what’s more important than deciding whether to use the Oxford comma is consistency in application. The worst Oxford comma-related outcome is when the same piece of content sometimes uses it, and sometimes doesn’t.

Unfortunately, in the end it’s somewhat of an unsatisfying answer, but it is also the one that makes the most sense when it comes to the Oxford comma: Decide whatever you like but make a choice and stick with it.