The Oxford Comma: An Explanation, A History And A Defence

The Oxford comma. Hate it, love it or think everyone should just grow up and stop fighting, this little piece of punctuation has been at the centre of controversy, discourse and debate for decades. But where did it come from? Why is there so much disagreement? And most importantly, who is right? 

For anyone who isn’t aware, the Oxford comma (also sometimes called the serial comma, or apparently the Harvard comma, though even Google seems skeptical of that one) is the term for the last comma in a list of items, the one that precedes and, or or nor. For example, in the preceding sentence, an Oxford comma could be placed between the two “or”s.

Before I begin in earnest, I should address the elephant in the room: this article does not in fact contain the Oxford comma. Her Campus generally follows the recommendations of the AP Stylebook, which doesn’t use the Oxford comma. There are exceptions for when the subclauses are complex and contain conjunctions of their own, when the subclauses are themselves full sentences or when leaving the comma out would lead to confusion or ambiguity. But for the most part, Her Campus opines that Oxford can stay on its own side of the ocean, thanks, and take its comma with it. 

Ironically, the Oxford comma is actually used more on this side of the pond than it is in the country of its namesake. In the United Kingdom, as well as Canada, Australia and South Africa, most style guides do not support the Oxford comma (the exception, of course, being the Oxford Style Guide itself). But in the United States, opinions are more mixed: As previously mentioned, the AP Stylebook votes against, and is joined by The New York Times stylebook. However, more than a dozen style guides, including the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, The Chicago Manual of Style and the United States Government Printing Office, do recommend it. 

The comma as we know it today was first introduced in the 15th century by an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius, who also invented the semicolon and italics. Previously, a slash mark (/) was used to denote a pause in speech. Manutius shortened the slash so it fit in better with a line of lowercase text, and curved it slightly. The word “comma” itself didn’t arise until a few decades later, and comes from the Greek koptein meaning “to cut off.”

The Oxford comma itself, on the other hand, has slightly more debated origins. Some attribute it to Horace Hart, who wrote the 1905 Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford to serve as a style guide for employees. The guide includes the line, “A Comma separates clauses, phrases, and particles,” which seems to be as close as it gets to defining (while demonstrating) the use. Others credit F. Howard Collins and his 1912 book, Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists, which specifically states that “the comma is of value as marking out 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”—and Collins for his part attributes the opinion to Herbert Spencer. Whether you attribute the usage to Hart, Collins or Spencer, we do know that the first person to call it the Oxford comma was Peter Sutcliff in his 1978 history of the Oxford University Press.

The comma is the second-most common punctuation mark in English, beaten out only by the period. Which, honestly, I’m a little surprised by, since I’ve been known to write sentences with far more commas than a sentence has any right to, and I’m sure you’ve read academic texts that had far worse offenders, as though they were trying to see if they could break their record, when really what they were doing was making themselves completely incomprehensible—okay, I think I’ve made my point. But while sentences can contain many commas, they generally only contain one period—or, if they end with a question mark or exclamation point, no periods!

Okay, back to the subject at hand: Why does it matter? 

Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t, so let’s rephrase: Why do people care? 

And the simple answer to that is probably that humans like having strong opinions about meaningless things—pineapple pizza, the correct way to position your toilet paper roll, what colour the dress is. A little good-natured bickering can be fun from time to time!

But that’s still not the answer to the question we’re actually asking, which is: What are the arguments against and in favour of the Oxford comma?

The main reason that the Oxford comma is not always used is to conserve space and time. It may not seem like one tiny, tucked-away mark could take up much space, but typewriters used monospaced fonts, meaning that every character was the same size, from a period to a W. Or in mechanical printing, every extra character had to be cast in metal and arranged on the press. Newspapers, which are the most common anti-Oxfordians, were some of the last to move away from the mechanical press, as well as looking to squeeze as much meaning as possible into as little space as possible. But now, almost everything is digitally printed—or just published online—so these constraints aren’t really as big of an issue.

The Oxford comma, like any element of language, is intended to make meaning clearer. Commas serve to reflect the natural pauses in speech, breaking up a larger sentence or list into smaller, more manageable chunks. Further, it can reduce ambiguity, such as in three-item lists where the second and third items could be descriptors of the first. There was even a recent court case which hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma: Maine’s overtime laws have exemptions for the duties of “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution”—but is “distribution” a noun of its own, or the subject of the packing? As a result of the ambiguity, five delivery drivers were awarded a five million dollar settlement, and Maine replaced their commas with semicolons (including one after “shipment”).

There are instances where the Oxford comma may in fact introduce ambiguity rather than removing it, however these phrases are often ambiguous regardless. For instance, “We hired Gerald, a soldier, and a sailor” could refer to two people or three, but “We hired Gerald, a soldier and a sailor” could refer to three people or just one. Adding the comma didn’t cause the problem—the sentence itself is the problem.

My stance is that the Oxford comma should be standard practice. It never makes things worse, only better or the same. It makes lists consistent, instead of weirdly linking the last two items. Space constraints are hardly a significant issue in the digital age. If opposing the Oxford comma is the hill you want to fight and die on… Well, I can’t stop you. Grammar is all made up anyways. But be warned, that hill might be expensive. Just ask Maine.

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