The Oxford Comma Debate

oxford comma debateThe Oxford comma is a polarizing piece of punctuation, and its use has even been disputed in the courtroom. The Oxford comma debate raged on in a class-action lawsuit where Oakhurst Dairy drivers were awarded $5 million for not receiving overtime pay from their employer. Maine law states workers must be paid 1.5 times their normal wage if they exceed 40 hours per week. The exceptions to this law included the following activities:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish product; and
  3. Perishable foods

The drivers claimed that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were not two separate exemptions because there wasn’t a comma included before “or”. This meant that distribution on its own was not an exception to the law and merited overtime pay. The ambiguity that resulted by omitting the Oxford comma caused the judge to rule in favor of the drivers.

What Exactly is the Oxford Comma?

If a single comma can cost a company millions of dollars, the Oxford comma debate must be a big deal. Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is a piece of punctuation placed just before a coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items. There is little consistency to its use and it continues to spark controversy in the world of writing. Many American-style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style advocate for the use of the comma, but the Associated Press Stylebook is one of the most noteworthy exceptions. Several publications only use it when it’s necessary to avoid confusion, and most foreign languages leave it out of their writing entirely.

Arguments In Favor

Many researchers, academics, and writers insist on using the Oxford comma in their work. Proponents of this comma believe that it improves the clarity of a sentence and should never be left out. Consider this example:

Without the Oxford comma: “After accepting the award, the director thanked his parents, Jeff Goldblum and God.”

With the Oxford comma: “After accepting the award, the director thanked his parents, Jeff Goldblum, and God.”

The absence of the Oxford comma in this example literally changes the meaning of the sentence. Without the comma, it could be wrongly assumed that the director’s parents are Jeff Goldblum and God. Placing the comma before “and” separates the two nouns and helps to avoid any misconception of meaning.

Another argument in favor of the Oxford comma is that it better mimics the cadence of a spoken sentence. Adding an extra comma before a conjunction represents the pause you would take while speaking, and many people would argue that it makes the meaning of a sentence more clear. Like the example above, failing to pause at the end of could make the listener believe that the final two items in the list are combined.

Arguments Against

The Associated Press, along with many journalists, are against the Oxford comma being a grammatical requirement. Opponents of the comma believe that it can make a piece of writing seem cluttered and even pretentious. A lot of these people think that including a conjunction is sufficient enough, and some would even say that including the extra comma belittles readers because the author assumes they have difficulty understanding longer sentences. Publishers also frown upon its use because it has the potential to take up page space, something that is incredibly crucial to conserve.

Some people would consider the Oxford comma in this example to be unnecessary:

Without the Oxford comma: “Mary went to the mall, the library and then to Jenny’s house.”

With the Oxford comma: “Mary went to the mall, the library, and then to Jenny’s house.”

In the example above, some would argue that the sentence is clear enough without the extra comma.      

One Key Takeaway

Whatever your stance is in the Oxford comma debate, remember to remain consistent in your writing. Only using the comma periodically could cause even more ambiguity and make your writing seem unprofessional. The comma is not yet a universal requirement, so pick a side and stick to it! 


Where do you stand in the Oxford comma debate? Share your opinion with us in the comment section below!

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