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.
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