The Oxford Comma Controversy

An age-old argument that continues to make grammarians’ blood boil

Ah, the Oxford comma.

A welcome sight to some. An irksome blight to others. And the subject of a never-ending battle among grammar and punctuation geeks.

So what is the Oxford comma?

First of all, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma—your choice of term will likely stir up another argument) is simply the comma that is placed before the “and” in a list of things. As in:

Branding professionals love to talk about differentiators, unique selling propositions, and positioning statements.

In this sentence, the Oxford comma is the comma that follows “propositions.”

So why in the world would the presence or omission of that comma lead to grammarian cage fights?

Those who champion the Oxford comma point to how it reliably clears up any confusion that may arise from a listing of items in a series. An example with it:

My heroes are my parents, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.

And without:

My heroes are my parents, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.

Clearly in this case, the Oxford comma helps the writer avoid making a comical misstatement. However, those who disdain the Oxford comma say that such confusion can be easily pre-empted by simply reordering the series without using the extra comma:

My heroes are Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and my parents.

It’s more important than you think

Lest you think that this argument over a humble comma is utterly trivial, consider a 2014 lawsuit in Maine between a dairy and several truck drivers that hinged on the interpretation of a state law that omitted an Oxford comma in a series of activities in question. We’ll spare you the details, but ultimately the absence of an Oxford comma in the wording of the law was the determining factor in the law’s lack of clarity. As a result, the dairy agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to the driversOxford comma fans celebrated as if they had won the $5 million themselves.

Moving forward

Technically, there really is no right or wrong position on Oxford comma usage. Those who favor the Oxford comma tend to be more traditional and a stickler for rules in their writing. Those on the other side take a more relaxed position when it comes to established grammar and punctuation guidelines and see commas as unsightly and overused. Whether you use the Oxford comma or not in your writing, we can all agree that the ultimate goal should be clarity and accuracy.

So are you an Oxford comma supporter, cheerleader, and defender?

Or an Oxford comma dissident, rebel and non-believer?