To comma, or not to comma

LOTR CommaOh, Boromir. My poor, doomed-to-die fantasy hero. Yeah, one does. And by the way, you forgot a period at the end of your sentence.

Even non-writers are non-shy about expressing their opinion over comma placement. But nothing is quite so galvanizing as the dear old Oxford comma. Now, before I make a whole lotta friends, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same comma.

Ox·ford com·ma

noun

a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect).

— Google search results

When you go straight to the source, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “A comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect). Also called Oxford comma.” It also states that it’s “an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list”.

Alright, now that we’re on the same metaphorical (and digital) page, I’m going to be honest—and brace myself for a wave of unfollows.

I don’t typically use the Oxford comma.

Before you start throwing veggies at your screen, hear me out. I’m writing from the perspective of a digital copywriter.

Why not use the Oxford comma?

In today’s digital age in which much content is written for online consumption, the Oxford comma creates an unnecessary pause for the reader.

It’s no secret that most people don’t fully read online content; they scan the screen. Which means that communications today are pressed to be read faster and faster and on increasingly smaller devices. Banner ads, social media, mobile headlines, search ads, subject lines, news headlines, marketing emails; these are areas in which space itself is also at a premium, and every character in the character count is as precious as the last slice of pie.

Simply put, the Oxford comma slows a reader down. And on a tiny, handheld device, it creates unnecessary clutter.

More and more companies are adopting style guides that prohibit using the Oxford comma except when necessary for clarity. (I work for one such company, and I love it.) Even the Associated Press has moved away from using the Oxford comma.

Not using the Oxford comma isn’t a mistake, it’s a style choice.

Why use the Oxford comma?

To avoid being sued, for one. I recently came across the New York Times article, Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute, by Daniel Victor, in which the Oxford comma is center stage.

However, even in that article, Daniel states:

Most American news organizations tend to leave the Oxford comma out while allowing for exceptions to avoid confusion, like in the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

The Oxford comma is a staple of academic, legal and literary writing. While the Associated Press has moved away from it, the Chicago Manual of Style is holding on tight for the sake of clarity.

It has its uses. It leaves no doubt about what belongs where in a list. And in certain industries such as academia, the legal profession and many others, that’s necessary.

But do we have to be so picky?

No. Let’s come back to Daniel Victor’s example. “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

Who’s going to believe that this person is the biological product of Mother Teresa and the current pontiff? Really? I advocate that there is some responsibility on the reader to apply common sense and critical thinking.

Whichever side of the Oxford comma debate you take, you can engineer any number of examples to show that you’re right. Arika Okrent of the Mental Floss put together a list of The Best Shorts Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars that’s worth checking out.

But it’s not about being right. It’s about creating clear, engaging writing for your audience.

If the sentence needs the Oxford comma for clarity, either include it or rework the sentence so it makes sense without it and you don’t have to violate your style standards. Let’s not insult the audience for the sake of making a point about punctuation.

Here’s where I’m honest about my anti-Oxford comma origins…

I stopped using the Oxford comma before it was cool to do so. Before it was considered “anti-establishment.” Okay, before I knew what a big deal it was. I was in middle school (U.S.), and my English teacher said that we could choose to use it or not use, as long as we were consistent.

Everyone else in my class chose to use it. Therefore, I chose not to use it because I was a non-conformist at an early age. This has not changed.

Now, let’s open up a respectful, non-hateful discussion. What’s your take on the Oxford comma? Am I preaching to the choir, or are you in a committed relationship with this particular piece of punctuation?

4 thoughts on “To comma, or not to comma

  1. Wow, is a disrespectful, hateful discussion a risk in re. comma usage, lol? Not from me. I use an Oxford comma personally, but if a SME sweats it (because you know how grammatically committed those technical types are ;)), I delete it. You make a convincing argument to not use it all in technical or online content. Thanks.

    • Yes, people can get really fired up about this specific comma. Sometimes I fear that one of them will whip an em dash from their sleeve and start stabbing. 🙂

  2. Thank you for giving it a name for me. I haven’t used it since elementary school, either, most likely. I haven’t though of it but briefly, a few years ago, when a writer friend pointed it out. And recently, I noticed my daughter uses it in 2nd grade. I vote for streamlining writing. Thanks for your interesting post.

    • Hi Joanna, “streamlining” is a good word for it. I’m surrounded by writers who are singularly devoted to that particular comma while I am not. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

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