The Oxford Comma

By Alyssa Mielke

Hey, welcome back! Today I’m tackling one of my favorite controversial subjects: the Oxford comma.

To be fair, it isn’t that controversial, but it is a very important piece in the puzzle that makes up grammar. Some people will argue that the Oxford comma is not necessary; those people are wrong.

Before I go proving my point, however, let’s take a look at the history of the serial comma (the comma after the penultimate word in a list). There must be some fascinating story if just one Google search for a piece of punctuation lands 705,000 results.

The Oxford comma is named after Oxford University Press, which is considered the first press to publish a serial comma and name it after itself. Now, I am sure that this specific comma was used at at some point before the first result Google shows, but no one dedicated the time to go through every book before Oxford claimed it. Johannes Gutenberg, while working the first versions of the printing press, probably added in a couple as a joke. The authors who hated the serial comma but wanted fast publishing had nowhere else to go and had to live with it, but I have no source for that.

Oxford first claimed the serial comma in 1893 when H. F. Collins wrote Author’s and Printer’s Dictionary. Collins uses a quote from Herbert Spencer, a famous Victorian philosopher, in an entry titled “‘and’ or ‘, and’”. Spender demands equality for each word used in a list: “To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally.”

If that has not already convinced you of the necessity of this beautiful addition to punctuation in a sentence, allow me to provide you with a few reasons why it most definitely should be included in your work.

1. It makes for an ambiguous sentence.

Without the Oxford comma: I cried with my supervisors, Bethany and George.

With the Oxford comma: I cried with my supervisors, Bethany, and George.

Without our little friend, Bethany and George could either be your supervisors or supportive friends that awkwardly stand by you when you’re crying with your supervisors. Conveying a fact to someone should be clear and leave no room for error.

2. It sounds like you are addressing people at the end of your sentence.

Without the Oxford comma: Making breakfast was easy with the help of Betsy, Carl and Sam.

With the Oxford comma: Making breakfast was easy with the help of Betsy, Carl, and Sam.

Addressing people at the end of a sentence just strikes me as odd (unless you are phrasing a question or thanking/congratulating someone), but that is how the sentence looks. It reads like a passive-aggressive way to emphasize that Betsy was around to help with breakfast but Carl and Sam were nowhere to be seen.

3. Equality!

Without the Oxford comma: Please get me salad, donuts and soup.

With the Oxford comma: Please get me salad, donuts, and soup.

Without that extra comma, our poor donuts don’t get an emphasis! They might be the most important part of the list, but because there is no rest after the word, they seem insignificant. The donuts may even be—egad—forgotten! Each word deserves its own chance to have the same amount of recognition that the others do. Don’t be the person that makes words feel left out.

There you have it! All of the reasons you need to use the Oxford comma, compacted into a 600-word post.

Take care, so long as you use the Oxford comma.