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The Life, Times, and Adventures of the Oxford Comma

by IamI


The Life, Times, and Adventures of the Oxford Comma

It seems fitting that English (a language prone more than any other to breaking its own rules) has a piece of punctuation that is not technically necessary, but when it is missing it can cause confusion, unintentional hilarity, and even lawsuits. This is the lot of the Oxford comma, a controversial little dot whose impact can still be felt today.

A logical place to begin when talking about the Oxford comma would be the history of commas in general. The first recorded use of what would eventually become the comma is located in Saint Jerome’s instructions on copying out the Bible (ESUScotland). However, this was not the comma as we know it today. It had the same purpose (a pause in a sentence), but it did not look like how the comma does today; the instructed pause was interpreted by the monks transcribing the Bible as a stroke or dash, called a virgule (Latin for twig) (ESUScotland). This was the piece of punctuation used for several hundred years and continued into the era of the printing press (ESUScotland). However, this virgule began to fall out of fashion. In response, a Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius designed the current form of the comma in the late fourteenth century (ESUScotland). George Puttenham first used the word ‘comma’ in English; he took the term from the Latin word meaning ‘pause’.

With the general history of the comma out of the way, we can begin looking at the Oxford comma. The best place to start would be to define what the Oxford comma is. The Oxford comma (alternatively known as the Serial or Harvard comma (Merriam-Webster)) is a “piece of punctuation that occurs just before a coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more items” (Scribendi). The origins of each of the three names are easily traceable. The first two names: the Oxford comma (first used by Peter H. Sutcliffe (Grammerist)) and the Harvard comma are called such because the style guides for the academic presses of both universities mandate the use of this comma (Lexico). The third name (Serial comma, first used in 1922 (Merriam-Webster)) is even easier; it was called this because it separates the final item in a list or series (hence the name ‘Serial comma’). Now that we know what the Oxford comma is and a brief history of it and its names, we can get into the debate surrounding this piece of punctuation.

The confusion around this piece of punctuation is only increased by the fact that style guides often contradict each other on the necessity of the Oxford comma. Since there are more style guides that support the comma, it would make sense to look at their argument first. Before the arguments are looked at, however, it would be prudent to list these style guides. There is, of course The Oxford University Style Guide, The Harvard University Press Stylebook (as well as most other academic publication style guides), The MLA (or Modern Language association) and APA (or American Psychological Association) style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style (which is used by most commercial publishers (Acrolinx)), and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Now that we know the supporters of the Oxford comma, we can get to their arguments.

The first of these arguments is that the Oxford comma adds clarity. This is because without it, the single comma and then the conjunction ‘and’ would imply that the two items located after the comma are related in a way which they may not be. For example, this often used example of an award dedication that is missing the Oxford comma: ‘I dedicate this award to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’ It is clear that this is ridiculous in its current form, but with the Oxford comma it looks like this: ‘I dedicate this award to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.’, which makes more sense. The second of their arguments is efficiency. For example, if we were to reword the previous example to convey the correct meaning without using the Oxford comma, it would look something like: ‘I dedicate this award to my parents, as well as to Ayn Rand and to God.’ As we can see, it takes more words to say the same thing as what was said with the Oxford comma.

By contrast, we have only one notable style guide that recommends against using the Oxford comma: the AP (or Associated Press) style guide (Scribendi), which is the style guide used by most newspapers. It rejects the use of the Oxford comma (with the exception of cases where it would make the writing more clear) on the grounds that it is unnecessary, makes writing seem stuffy, and can overcomplicate things. This makes sense, especially given the context in which this style guide is meant to be applied. For example, if you have a set of items like ‘red, blue, and green,’ we could remove the comma without any change to the meaning of the sentence, making it read like this: ‘red, blue and green.’ Similarly, if a sentence has the list within a parenthetical expression, it could make sentences unnecessarily convoluted, making it harder for the reader to follow. But in the end, both of these arguments are largely semantic ones; at most, they are humorous, at worst they are a nuisance. But what if a missing Oxford comma could cost you millions?

This was the situation that the Oakhurst dairy company found themselves in when some of their delivery drivers sued for overtime payment, citing a missing Oxford comma in their contract (NPR). The court ruled in favor of the drivers and the following settlement resulted in Oakhurst dairy paying out 250,000 dollars to the drivers (NPR). A slightly less serious controversy that arose from a missing Oxford comma was when the commemorative Brexit Fifty-pence piece was released to the public with the motto “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” The lack of the comma was most notably criticized by author Phillip Pullman (ABC).

The history of the comma could be said to mirror that of English. It began as something totally unrecognizable to modern eyes and evolved into its current form over time with conscious innovation and multicultural input, from hand-copied Latin Bibles to Venetian printing presses. The Oxford comma in particular mirrors this. Like pronunciations and spellings, you can find differing opinions and instructions in various places; where it differs, however, is in the importance of these variations. Spellings rarely make or break lawsuits. And the fact that the Oxford comma has the power to do this is proof that it still clearly has an impact, from the courtroom to the classroom and everywhere in between.













––Works Cited––

Gozales, Richard. "Maine Dairy Drivers Settle Overtime Case That Hinged On An Absent Comma." NPR, NPR, 8 Feb. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/08/584391...

MacFarlane, Julia. "Commemorative Brexit coin sparks Oxford comma debate." ABC, ABC, 28 Jan. 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/commemorativ...

Mulvey, Christopher. "A History of Punctuation: The Comma." English-Speaking Union Scotland, 8 Feb. 2018,www.esuscotland.org.uk/single-post/2018/02/08/A-History-of-Punctuation-The-Comma.

"Oxford comma." Grammarist, grammarist.com/punctuation/oxford-comma/.

“Serial comma.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/serial... Accessed 1 May. 2020.

Spiers, Cynthia. "Four US Style Guides That Every Writer Needs to Know About." Acrolinx.com, Acrolinx, 18 June 2018, www.acrolinx.com/blog/four-us-style-guides-that-e...

"Where Did the Oxford Comma Come From, and Why Is It So Important?" Scribendi.Com, Scribendi, www.scribendi.com/advice/oxford_comma_importance....

"What Is The Oxford Comma?" Lexico.com, Oxford,www.lexico.com/explore/what-is-the oxford-comma.


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Sun May 31, 2020 12:26 am
Katteex wrote a review...



Hello there!

I don't know if this is a creative or an academic essay, so I decided to view it as an academic one since essays are usually like that. First off, this essay is really interesting. I've always used the Oxford comma because the lack of it disturbs me. It feels irritable, sometimes, when I read essays that don't use this. Of course, maybe it's just me.

Now, for my critique on your work, I would like to put on a disclaimer that I didn't focus on your grammar and more on the content and coherency. I would like to start at your intro. There's no hook in your essay. This essay caught my eye because I am a fan of Oxford comma, but for a general audience? I'm not too sure. I suggest that you start your essay with narrating the Oakhurst Dairy, then you can use your current first paragraph as the second par.

I do know that you wanted to place the Oakhurst Dairy in the latter part so you could explain things further, but I don't think it necessarily has to be in order? I mean you could state that "Going back to the Oakhurst Dairy situation (add your explanation)."

Next, from my understanding, this is your thesis statement:

It seems fitting that English (a language prone more than any other to breaking its own rules) has a piece of punctuation that is not technically necessary, but when it is missing it can cause confusion, unintentional hilarity, and even lawsuits.


Since using the Oxford comma is technically just an option, I don't think it has to do anything with breaking the rules of the language. Also, in an essay, this part

when it is missing it can cause confusion, unintentional hilarity, and even lawsuits.


Should be further discussed in your essay. I read about the confusion and lawsuits part, however, the unintentional hilarity wasn't expounded. You didn't say anything about this, which makes me wonder how the Oxford Comma could create "unintentional hilarity." I also recommend if you'd give an anecdote for this. It would make it more interesting.

Third,
The lines

A logical place to begin when talking about the Oxford comma would be the history of commas in general.


With the general history of the comma out of the way, we can begin looking at the Oxford comma. The best place to start would be to define what the Oxford comma is


Now that we know what the Oxford comma is and a brief history of it and its names, we can get into the debate surrounding this piece of punctuation.


Now that we know the supporters of the Oxford comma, we can get to their arguments.


These phrases are unnecessary. This isn't a feature article so you don't need to guide the readers in a conspicuous way. Even feature articles aren't this instructive (i'm part of my school's newspaper club). You don't need to say where you're starting, just start it. You can scrap the first quote and simply start with "The first recorded use of..."

In quote number 2, you could just fix the transition so that you don't have to say this. Honestly, the general history of the comma lacks more explanation. I suggest adding how the "Oxford comma" emerged. Why was it called that way? How did they start using this? With that, you can insert the meaning of the Oxford comma along the way.

Quote #4 is connected to the line "Since there are more style guides that support the comma, it would make sense to look at their argument first. "

The essay became wordy when you can just simplify it by saying
"There are different style guides such as the [...] that supports the Oxford Comma and they argue that [...]

And you could just scrap the 5th quote because it became redundant.

Let's move on to paraphrasing. A bit of disclaimer but this is still all up to you. It is your choice if you accept my suggestions in this part because you have your own style.

First,

The confusion around this piece of punctuation is only increased by the fact that style guides often contradict each other on the necessity of…


Instead of saying "is only increased" you could simply say "increases." It was a bit awkward for me when I read it.

Second,

This is because without it, the single comma and then the conjunction ‘and’ would imply that the two items located after the comma are related in a way which they may not be.


"Which they may not be" sounds vague. I think you mean "the writer didn't intend it to."

And I don't want to sound nitpicky but you just paraphrase the "This is because without it," you could just say "With only a single comma and the conjunction 'and'" Again, it's up to you. Maybe, this is your writing style.

Okay, I'm sorry but I got a lot of things to say haha.

The line

It is clear that this is ridiculous in its current form,


This is subjective. In an essay, you don't need to say that something is "ridiculous" you have to explain why it is ridiculous so that people could see it too.


My last critique would be your conclusion.

The history of the comma could be said to mirror that of English. It began as something totally unrecognizable to modern eyes and evolved into its current form over time with conscious innovation and multicultural input, from hand-copied Latin Bibles to Venetian printing presses.



The Oxford comma in particular mirrors this. Like pronunciations and spellings, you can find differing opinions and instructions in various places; where it differs, however, is in the importance of these variations. Spellings rarely make or break lawsuits. And the fact that the Oxford comma has the power to do this is proof that it still clearly has an impact, from the courtroom to the classroom and everywhere in between.
[/quote][/quote]

The first quote has little connection with the second quote. "The history of the comma evolved like English, but saying the "Oxford comma" is different and it isn't related to evolving. It is a style of using the comma, but it isn't necessarily the comma.

And your last sentence

"And the fact that the Oxford comma has the power to do this is proof that it still clearly has an impact, from the courtroom to the classroom and everywhere in between."

You've only given a law-related situation, so you couldn't conclude that it is necessarily "everywhere. " If you want to conclude it like this, you should show more examples or situations. And so what (it sounds rude but I don't know how else to say it sorry) if it's powerful? What do you want the reader to do? Should everyone start using it? Is it supposed to be mandatory now?

That's about it. I didn't check the grammar so please forgive me for that. And the amount of things I said here may be overwhelming but I hope you find this helpful. I also don't want to sound rude so if you read something that seemed like that please do tell me and I'll apologize. Your essay is interesting, informative, and has so much potential.

I hope you keep on writing:) I'd like to read more of your essays.

Best regards,

Kattee x




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Mon May 11, 2020 6:40 am
Tawsif wrote a review...



I'm a big fan of scholarly essays that inform about new things and that too in smooth and entertaining language. And this essay was just what I love. Well done!

Here's a few suggestions:

"It seems fitting that English (a language prone more than any other to breaking its own rules) has a piece of punctuation that is not technically necessary, but when it is missing it can cause confusion, unintentional hilarity, and even lawsuits."

I think it sounds much better it you put it like this: "It seems fitting that English (a language prone more than any other to breaking its own rules) has a piece of punctuation that is not technically necessary, but when missing can cause confusion, unintentional hilarity, and even lawsuits." That way the sentence has more flow and elegance.

"....logical place to begin when talking about the Oxford comma would be the history of commas in general."

Shouldn't it be 'logical place to begin with....."?

"Now that we know the supporters of the Oxford comma, we can get to their arguments."

It's important to maintain transition in an essay and therefore use transitional sentences sometimes. But in your essay, I found the transitional sentences too repetitive. See, you've used the structure 'now that we've done............., it's logical to move on to.......' twice. And in the paragraph where you talk about the style guides favouring the Oxford Comma, you begin with 'The confusion around this piece of punctuation is only increased by the fact that style guides often contradict each other on the necessity of the Oxford comma. Since there are more style guides that support the comma, it would make sense to look at their argument first. Before the arguments are looked at, however, it would be prudent to list these style guides.' See, how much of transitional language is there? You can simply avoid these sentences and begin with coming to your point and maybe introducing the transition in the middle. I believe you could do that very effectively, considering how nicely you wrote this essay.

Also, at the end of this para, you mention: "Now that we know the supporters of the Oxford comma, we can get to their arguments." See? Transition again! You already said at the beginning of this para that you're going to talk about the style guides that favour the Oxford comma because it's 'prudent' to look at the supporters of the Oxford Comma before moving into the supporting arguments. You already said that! So that transition at the end of the same para is just not needed.

'The history of the comma could be said to mirror that of English.'

I think there's a slight confusion here. By 'the comma', do you mean just the comma, or the Oxford Comma'? I understand you're referring to 'just Comma', but to bring more clarity, you can place an inverted comma in the word 'comma' so the readers don't get confused.

I like the conclusion of your essay, particularly the concluding line. 'And the fact that the Oxford comma has the power to do this is proof that it still clearly has an impact, from the courtroom to the classroom and everywhere in between.' It's the perfect ending, with the alliteration between 'classroom and courtroom', and of course the statement of the impact of Oxford Comma that makes us really deal awed by the comma. Very well done!

I loved reading this essay. And I'd love to read more from you.

KEEP WRITING.




IamI says...


Thank you! I will work on my transitions. I'm currently doing the basic outlining for an essay on the Baroque art movement, so keep a look out for that. I have tendency towards repetition, if only because I barely keep track of what I'm writing as I'm writing it, so I will look out for this.

I'm glad you liked it! if you like my work feel free to go over to my profile and see if anything in my portfolio interests you.

Thanks again!



Tawsif says...


You're welcome.



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Fri May 08, 2020 11:43 pm
Starrify wrote a review...



I'm Starrify/Haley.

Let's go!

I found the repetition of parenthesis a little irritating. I understand that it is needed, but my brain refuses to listen to me. This is very educational and I learned some interesting things. I wouldn't have learned them without.

I am an avid user of the Oxford Comma as I was taught in school. I believe that is common, but it can be confusing and easier with it gone. I still use and respect it and it's followers.

There was a huge part of white. It started to hurt my eyes, but maybe I am sensitive to those things.

Some of your links didn't show.

I saw no errors from a glance over.

<Starrify>




IamI says...


Thanks.




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