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Here’s What You Don’t Know About The Oxford Comma

Here’s What You Don’t Know About The Oxford Comma

oxford comma

It has been a longstanding debate: to use an Oxford comma or not. Personally, I don’t, but that’s the reporter in me. Many grammar experts would disagree and say the Oxford comma should always be used in formal writing.

Let’s just agree to disagree. However, there is something even more interesting about the controversial punctuation mark. Where did it come from? Who the heck thought to add it to the list of other English language quirks. Also known as the Harvard or serial comma, there is an interesting backstory to the whole thing.

According to a 2015 post by Jasso Lamberg, the Oxford comma can be traced back to one person: Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a classic Victorian generalist known for his philosophy. In fact, his favorite was “survival of the fittest.”

Lamberg’s post make plenty of interesting revelations, such as how the punctuation mark got its name.

“It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press,” writes Lamberg. “Oxford comma n. [after the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press] a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items.”

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It is still unclear exactly where it was used first, even though Spencer seems to take the claim. There is one thing we can agree on, the Oxford comma will continue to be one of most debated parts of the writing ever.

Do you use the Oxford comma?

View Comments (12)
  • Absolutely. There are plenty of examples of how eliminating the Oxford comma causes confusion. The serial comma also mimics natural speech. When speaking, I don’t say, “I bought bananas, bread and coffee.” An extra comma takes a nanosecond to type and, in my opinion, doesn’t impede reading speed and comprehension but clarifies it. It creates a uniform look in a list of items.

    I will say that I’m surprised that people get so upset over the issue. If I encounter copy that doesn’t include serial commas, I just shrug smugly. ;) Seriously, I have a strong opinion but, at the same time, don’t think it’s a big deal.

    • I agree with Beau. I used to be rather inconsistent with the issue, but an editor of mine (who is a Brit) insisted on it and I began to see the sense of it. Now it is a habit.

      • Yes, I use the Oxford comma. I like the separation of items in a series. Those in a writing group I attended did not always care for it, however, I believe they were wrong.

    • I agree with Beau. I’m adding a few examples for those who are undecided:

      “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”
      (Without the comma before “and,” you get a rather intriguing set of parents.)

      Another great example:
      “…Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”
      (This example supports the use of the Oxford comma because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector.)

  • I believe it is important to use the comma. It clarifies the meaning of a sentence and its omission, in my humble opinion, displays a lack of education. I wonder if the next item to be questioned will be the dash? If anyone doubts its importance, please tell me what I am talking about when I say thirty year old students. The dash, and its positioning, completely changes the meaning of the phrase.

  • I think that the classic example of, “let us eat grandma” versus “let us eat, grandma” shows the importance of the comma. Humor aside, it helps to clarify and, as stated in previous comments, mimicks natural speech patterns in the English language.

  • I use it I believe it’s clearer to the reader. I think there’s nothing to lose by using it.

  • I was surprised to see this as an Oxford comma. I was taught to write without it. From what I have been told, this was a habit of American writing and missed out in Britain. Some British writing which I had thought had been for the Americans or had been edited by an American may just be the writer’s own preference, habit or what s/he had been instructed to do.

    Normally, I leave it out unless there is an ambiguity that use of such a punctuation mark will avoid.

  • Oxford commas are a pox. They slow writing down and can cause confusion. Commas, when deployed correctly, are useful to help the reader understand meaning. Oxford commas are extraneous. It is in our style guide where I work and I have to remind myself to insert the needless Oxford comma every time it is called for — even though it adds no meaning.

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