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Several weeks ago, a few folks around the office got into a rather heated (read: barely serious) discussion about the enigma that is the Oxford Comma. The result of the conversation was a decisive split; half were fervently for the added punctuation, and the other half were vehemently against. Who knew such a simple, albeit important mark could cause such a commotion amongst linguists, designers, and programmers alike? The discussion still arises from time to time, but both sides have acknowledged changing anyone’s opinion on the issue is impossible. But this begs the question: What is the proper use of the Oxford Comma?
To answer this, it might be helpful to have some context. First of all, for those who are not aware of what the Oxford Comma actually is, here’s a definition: Also known as the Serial Comma, it is a comma placed before a coordinating conjunction in a series or list. Here’s an example: I went to the store with Bob, Sue, and Gene.
That comma after “Sue” and before “and” is the oxford comma. Simple, right? “No big deal,” you might say. But the truth of the matter is subtle nuances in the English language that have developed over the years have resulted in some pretty funky grammar techniques which have called into question the proper use of the Oxford Comma.
Various style guides differ on its correct application: the AP style manual to calls for omitting the comma, while the Chicago Manual of Style strongly advises in its use. However, even in Great Britain, where the Oxford Comma earns its namesake, its use varies significantly.
The biggest reason for the difference in opinion over the Oxford Comma is ambiguity. Read the following sentence, and try to create an image of what the sentence says: I went to dinner with my parents, Bert and Debbie.
Are my parents named Bert and Debbie, or did I go to dinner with four people? Both answers could be correct; without additional information, we may never know (hint: my parents are not named Bert and Debbie). The Oxford Comma alleviates this ambiguity by creating a clear separation between each item in the list. For example: I went to dinner with my parents, Bert, and Debbie.
Oh, that’s right, you went to dinner with four people. That makes perfect sense! However, some still contend that the Oxford Comma is unnecessary; the coordinating conjunction is intended to do the work of the Oxford Comma, and most problems of ambiguity could be resolved by rearranging the list. For example: I went to dinner with Bert, Debbie and my parents.
This also creates a clear picture of the group with whom I went to dinner, and I didn’t have the heavy burden of adding an extra keystroke to my typing. But simply rearranging the list may not always be applicable, especially when the list is intended to denote some sort of order: I love my parents, June and George, in that order.
Do I love June and George, who are also my parents, or do I love my parents and then June and then George? We can’t rearrange the list because we would be rearranging the order of whom I love more. And that simply will not do!
So, what’s the right answer? There is none. Honestly, it depends on personal preference (depending on the style guide, of course); and as long as you can demonstrate a consistent pattern for its use or omission, you’re probably safe. While style manuals vary significantly in the suggested use of the Oxford Comma, each agrees that whatever course of action you choose, just make sure you are consistent and have a clear rationale for your choice. Now, enough with this Oxford Comma debate; I’ve got to get back to my chores, washing the dog and eating cereal.