The Oxford comma has the distinction of being one of the most hotly debated elements of the English language. Also referred to as the serial comma, this little curlicue has been fiercely defended - or shrugged off - by grammarians for centuries.
Do you really need to use the Oxford comma? The short answer appears to be yes, with many opportunities for rebuttals and debates. Let's take a closer look.
The Oxford comma is, you guessed it, a comma that's placed in a series of three or more items. It's used in both "and" and "or" lists. For example:
She liked to read books, paint portraits, and take her dog for a walk.
Another example would be:
Make sure he doesn't eat any peanuts, bread, or carrot sticks.
In the lists above, was the second comma really necessary? Wouldn't the powers of deduction lead anyone to believe those were three separate activities or snacks? Do we really need to use serial commas?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. Let's look at another example:
Everyone stood up and cheered when the president, Jack and Jill entered the ballroom.
In this example, it seems like the president is someone named "Jack and Jill." Instead, it should read:
Everyone stood up and cheered when the president, Jack, and Jill entered the ballroom.
Let's consider another example. What if a mother asked her child to bring her the pineapple, strawberries, carrot sticks and Windex from the grocery bags?
Does that mean the mother is asking the child to bring pineapple, strawberries and Windex-coated carrot sticks from the grocery bags? Yuck.
An Oxford comma provides a distinction between elements in a list of three or more items. Worse than Windex poisoning, a lack of an Oxford comma can even have legal ramifications.
A group of dairy delivery drivers in Maine received a $5 million settlement in a debate, due entirely to the lack of an Oxford comma. In legislative documents, certain tasks were singled out as exempt from overtime payments.
The documents indicated that the "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" certain product are exempt from overtime payments.
Without a comma in the final series of tasks, "packing for shipment or distribution" could be read as "packing for shipment OR packing for distribution," where "packing for" is used for both "shipment" and "distribution."
This is quite different from [packing for shipment] or [distribution], wherein the drivers are doing the latter task. By placing an Oxford comma before "or distribution," it would've been clear that "distribution" was its own separate act.
Don't you think five million dollars is quite a loss, due the lack of a single, tiny comma? You can be sure an Oxford comma was added to the revised documents.
Let's take a moment to review the main style guides. We'll see where each of the heavy-hitters come down on the subject.
In September 2017, the Associated Press (AP) released a clear, concise statement via Twitter. They wrote, "We don't ban Oxford commas! We say: If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma."
That's precisely the kind of thing that could've saved the state of Maine a whopping $5 million.
The APA Stylebook by the American Psychological Association, however, is far firmer on their stance on the Oxford comma. In the punctuation section of the guidebook, you'll note the APA "requires the use of the serial (or Oxford) comma in lists of three or more items."
Turns out the Chicago Manual of Style falls on the same side as the APA. They, too, require the serial comma in a list of three or more items. It seems to be a matter of ambiguity. In an effort to minimize exactly that, the Chicago Manual of Style calls for the serial comma.
Finally, the MLA Style Guide from the Modern Language Association requires the use of the Oxford comma as well. The only folks who leave it open to interpretation are the Associated Press.
Alright, alright. If someone is truly adamant, don't allow them to get your knickers in a bunch. It's true that the Oxford comma is sort of "open for interpretation." But, in the event of academic writing, be sure to check your style guides. Three out of four require it.
In the event of blog writing, go with your gut. If you want to be clear and concise, use the Oxford comma. If you want to run into a situation akin to the delivery drivers in Maine, go without it.
For such a tiny punctuation mark, the comma carries a lot of weight. Aside from clarity and precision, here are eight other times commas were important.