Who Cares About the Oxford Comma?

2000px-Virgola.svgBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

My high school administration, in the midst of crafting a new vision and mission, asked for teacher input during an in-service day. We sat at cafeteria tables, divided by birthday months. My table represented the music, math, science and English departments.

Before providing feedback, we read the proposed new vision, mission and enduring goals. But grammatical inconsistencies clouded my focus and I couldn’t analyze how the vision “embraced the opportunities of tomorrow” or “created paths for students.” The Oxford comma glared at me.

To our group-assigned recorder, I said, “Write down ‘grammatical inconsistencies.’”

“Which?” the math teacher asked.

“The Oxford comma. Here…” I pointed to the vision. “They’re using it sometimes but not others.”

“The what?”

“It’s the comma—the series comma—that separates the last two items in a list.”

“But is it right or is it wrong?” the math teacher asked.

Who says we should use the Oxford comma? APA, MLA, Chicago Style and AMA. Who says forget it? The New York Times, The Economist, The AP Stylebook and European writers.

Look at what you’re reading in magazines, newspapers, blogs and emails. You’re probably not seeing the Oxford comma. As a journalism major, my writing avoids it. I tell my students the Oxford comma has disappeared—just like two spaces after a period. (What? You didn’t know about that? More to come in a future blog.) I tell my students modern writing demands brevity and consistency.

To answer the math teacher, I said, “If your writing is clear without the Oxford comma, why use it? Why waste the space or time…yours or your reader’s? But if you’re writing for a publication that requires MLA or APA—or if your list would be unclear or have a different meaning without it—use it.”

The math teacher scrunched his forehead. “This is why I teach math. One plus one is always two.”

The science teacher, equally as confused, said, “Why would there be two ways to do one thing?”

“English is an art. There isn’t always one right or wrong way. And English is evolving. Take ginormous. It wasn’t a word a few years, but now it is in the Webster Dictionary. Writing is about clarity and about making purposeful choices.”

“So should I use the Oxford comma or not?”

“I would say it’s up to you. But whatever you decide, be consistent.”


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