Writer Debate: The Oxford Comma

If you’ve been writing for very long, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the debate over the Oxford comma. To use it or not to use it? That is the question.

From a young age, we’re conditioned to use the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. In fact, I think in grade school most of us are taught to know it as the serial comma. I didn’t even know it went by another name until I encountered the debate about it online over my years of freelancing.

However, as we get older and begin looking for work writing in the real world, we encounter varying opinions over this little comma. Some employers want you to use it, and others don’t. It’s frustrating to say the least because it can be difficult to keep the rules for each client straight.

The Oxford Comma Defined

Before we go any further, let’s clarify for any of those who aren’t clear on it, just what the Oxford comma is. The Oxford comma is that last comma that’s used in a series or a list. It comes right before the conjunction and indicates that there should be a pause before the connecting word.

Here’s an example with the Oxford comma:

Lisa, Stephanie, and Denise are all fans of musicals. 

Here’s an example without the Oxford comma:

Lisa, Stephanie and Denise are all fans of musicals. 

Notice how there’s a comma before “and” in the first example but not in the second one? That last comma is referred to as the Oxford, or serial, comma. This little guy (or gal, depending upon how you want to view it) has been the source of much contention among members of the literary community ever since the Internet came to be.

Elementary Grammar Tells Us to Use the Oxford Comma

But we’re taught to use the Oxford comma in elementary school! Surely they wouldn’t teach us something that was wrong?

It’s true that it’s technically correct to use the Oxford comma if we’re going by the traditional textbooks and rules laid out for the English language. However, therein lies the problem: in the rules for the English language.

English is arguably the most complex and frustrating language in the world to master because there’s many exceptions to grammar rules. There’s words that are pronounced just like other words but have different spellings and meanings, and now we find out that there are commas we’ve been taught to use our entire lives and they’re telling us not to use them in our professional writing? Which way is correct?

In short, and as confusing as it may sound, both ways are correct in the appropriate environment. The style guide that you’re using for writing determines whether or not you should employ the Oxford comma.

AP Style: The Style Guide for Online Content

The reason why the Internet is so often to blame for the omission of the Oxford comma is because it’s on the Internet that we first started to see it not being used. However, it’s not solely the Internet that’s to blame for the omission of our beloved Oxford comma. Rather, it’s the style guide that’s commonly used on the Internet.

If you attended college, you undoubtedly quickly learned which style guide your university preferred. While some colleges use APA style, others use MLA or Chicago. Whatever writing style your institution chooses to adhere to determines how your references should be formatted and denotes other stylistic preferences for academic papers.

Just like colleges, other educational institutions and other organizations in general have their preferred style guides, so does the Internet. AP style (not to be confused with APA style) was developed by the Associated Press, and it’s the style that is most commonly used for online content.

Reportedly, the reasoning behind getting rid of the Oxford comma per AP style was to simplify web content into an easier-to-read format (as if that one little comma caused a bunch of hubbub, but apparently it did). I remember when I first read articles published online (and from major news organizations and scholastic journals too!) and saw the omission of the Oxford comma, I thought they were just grammatical errors. However, when I kept seeing a steady exclusion of these serial commas, I eventually figured out that it was done on purpose, which led me to learn about this source of contention.

What’s the Verdict?

So what’s the verdict? Do you use Oxford commas or not? The simple answer for me is to always consult with the organization you’re writing for. If no specification is made and the writing is going to be in an online publication, then I defer to AP style and don’t use the Oxford comma. However, if the writing is for a print publication or if it’s for my own personal writings, then I go with the old-school method of using the Oxford comma.

Honestly, though, were it up to me, we’d embrace the Oxford comma and love it until the end of time. Lol.

What are your views on this topic? Do you favor the Oxford comma or not?