In defense of the Oxford comma


Mary Grace Heartlein

"Writing sentences that confuse people is generally not the goal of writing. "

Annie O'Brien, health and wellness editor

It shows up in elementary school classrooms, in books, and on the reading and English sections of the ACT. Among the publications that dislike it are The New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Kirkwood Call. The Oxford comma is a hotly disputed topic in the world of journalism and writing. But the truth of the matter is that anyone who is against the Oxford comma is against making sense.

Let’s pause for a little grammar lesson. The Oxford, or serial comma, is the last comma before “and” in a list. For example, in the sentence “I went to the store to buy eggs, milk, and flour,” the comma after “milk” is a serial comma. It is generally taught in elementary and middle school classrooms as the preferred option for punctuation. Use it and provide clarity. Omit it and cause confusion.

TKC conforms to a rigid set of grammatical rules called Associated Press (AP) style. AP style is against the use of the Oxford comma unless a list item has its own comma or its own conjunction. But this rule is inconsistent and dumb. And it is also just rude. Not using the Oxford comma is a mistake, both grammatically and morally.

Using the Oxford comma makes you more intelligent, especially because with it you can actually write coherent sentences. Commas should separate list items. Not just some of the list items, but all of them. If you get rid of the Oxford comma, some words are left without a comma of their own. How come milk doesn’t get its own comma? What did the last word in a list do to deserve this injustice?

In addition, your message could be unclear if you are not careful and consistent with your punctuation. Take this sentence for example: “I went to church with my parents, Carl and Mark.” Are your parents named Carl and Mark? Or are Carl and Mark two different people who aren’t related to you? If you would have used the Oxford comma, it would have been a simple solution. But now your reader has no idea what is going on with your parental figures.

Writing sentences that confuse people is generally not the goal of writing. And while you’re making people question the meaning of your sentence you can throw some accidental shade as well. If you had a list of “the morons, Lincoln and Gandhi,” you have just insulted two great leaders whom you probably never intended to insult. You should have just used that extra comma.

If you had never even heard of the Oxford comma before reading this story, you still have a chance to redeem yourself. You can still help this oft forgotten piece of punctuation come into the limelight. You still have the power to use it and write things that actually make sense. This is a call to action, a call to use the Oxford comma, and a call to be an intelligent human being.