The Controversial Oxford Comma

Use of the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma) is often debated in the grammar world. To use it or not: that is the question. Most non-journalistic writing in the United States follows the Chicago Manual of Style for writing and uses this little comma; however, most journalistic writing follows the Associated Press Style Guide, which suggests against using it. To help you decide whether or not the Oxford comma is necessary, let’s take a quick look at both sides of this controversy.

But first, I want to make sure we all know what we’re talking about when discussing the Oxford comma. This is the comma used before the last item in series or list of 3 or more items. It is used to separate and remove ambiguity from the author’s meaning. For example, this sentence uses the Oxford comma:
  • My duties include answering phone calls, responding to emails, filing, and supervising employees.

The final comma before “and” separates the last two duties – filing and supervising. Without that comma, the reader might think that my responsibilities include “filing and supervising employees,” leaving the reader to ponder how someone files employees.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the use of (or the lack of) the serial comma is of little to no consequence because the items in the series are words equal in weight and value, and they are separated by “and” or “or.”

The basic reasoning for or against using the Oxford comma breaks down as such:

Reasons for using it:

  • it clarifies ambiguity
  • it matches spoken cadence

Reasons against using it:

  • it is redundant

To use or not to use: that is the question. In arriving at your decision a practical tip is to not assume that your audience will automatically think what you’re thinking and to err on the side of caution, utilizing the serial comma to clarify your meaning. However, it is also important to take your organization into account. In your office you may notice a prevailing trend to use (or not to use) this controversial comma in your fellows’ writings. If you notice a trend in your office, then go with that!

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