There tends to be a heated debate between journalists, editors, grammar-enthusiasts, etc. about the use of the Oxford comma. Perhaps you know of this discussion, or perhaps you’ve never heard of the Oxford comma in your life. Either way, let’s briefly unpack this oddly-specific comma and why it causes such a fuss.
What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma is the comma before the conjunction in a list of items or phrases. For instance, take this sentence: “The seasons are winter, spring, summer, and fall.” The Oxford comma is the comma after summer. In various literature, you will see a mixed use: sometimes the comma is there, and sometimes it isn’t.
How it is taught in schools?
In elementary school, kids are taught to add that comma with the conjunction in lists they write. Because of this, many people spend years believing this to be the “rule.” It isn’t until becoming much older that people realize the Oxford comma isn’t actually a necessity. Even then, there are people who’ve never given it a second thought after learning this elementary grammar lesson. In colleges and universities, it’s a different story. The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook does not traditionally use the Oxford comma, and since the AP Stylebook is sometimes referred to as the “Journalist’s Bible,” what it says goes.
Why is there a debate?
Why the difference? Why does AP generally negate the comma while others swear by it? Lovers of grammar – of whom I believe to be one – debate the use of the Oxford comma. I have gone from knowing nothing about it, to disowning it, to reluctantly accepting it in the span of only a few years, and none of those reactions are necessarily wrong. The debate is a matter of preference, and what some believe to be journalistic principle.
What difference does it really make?
At the end of the day, it could be brushed off as a silly argument, but that begs the question of why there’s an argument in the first place. People wouldn’t make a fuss if there wasn’t something about this that makes an actual difference. In some cases, it can be confusing to exclude the comma, which the AP Stylebook elaborates on in their tweet from 2017 that explains their true view on the comma: “We don’t ban Oxford commas! We say: if omitting a comma could lead to confusion of interpretation, then use the comma. But: if a comma doesn’t help make clear what is being said, don’t use it.”
When it comes down to which is “correct” – whether we should or shouldn’t use the Oxford comma – the answer isn’t obvious. Instead, like many things in life, it depends on the circumstances and the context. Personally, I like this view. Instead of hating the comma or praising it, I instead use it when convenient and disregard it otherwise for the sake of clarity. After all… it’s only a comma.