In this week's Dear Megan column, our resident style maven goes head to head with the Oxford comma.
OK people, take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale. Today we’re tackling a pretty serious style issue*: the Oxford comma.
Whoa, Dear Megan, I’m sure you’re thinking, This is only our second blog post together. Isn’t it a little soon?
It really is. But you can credit (blame) gentle reader Melody Valdez, who posted the first and only question of Dear Megan (things will pick up):
Am I for or against the Oxford comma, Melody? Why don’t you ask how I feel about punching babies or worshipping Satan? Or Republicans, for that matter?
Kidding, I’m kidding. Sort of. You are correct; AP does not use the Oxford comma, and therefore, neither do I. The Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma (like serial killer, just sayin’)—is the comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) in a series of three or more. For example:
“Robert Downey Jr. showered me with diamonds, furs, and chocolates.”
See that last little comma between “furs” and “and”? That’s the Oxford comma, and it’s evil.
OK, OK. It isn’t precisely evil, but if you haven’t already guessed, opinions do run to extremes when it comes to this particular piece of punctuation. Even Oxford agrees. According to the “Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language:”
“Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence … Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice** is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.”
Use of it is mostly a matter of style and loyalty. Here’s how some key camps break it down:
- Those who follow the “MLA Style Manual,” “The Chicago Manual of Style” and Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” use it (#barbarians)
- Devotees of “The Associated Press Stylebook,” “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” and “The Canadian Press Stylebook” do not (#civilizedhumanbeings)
Omitting the Oxford comma was most likely an effort by many publications, especially newspapers, to save space. Whether you should use it depends on the style of the publication for which you are writing. Standard American journalism—including us fine folks here at ClearVoice—follows AP style.
Dear Megan, Is There No Exception?
Yes, there is. And it’s a pretty big one. If it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity, use it. A couple examples:
- Robert Downey Jr. and I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast in bed.
- The main points to consider are whether Robert Downey Jr. should get a divorce, whether we should date for a while or get married quickly, and whether I need serious mental help.
See? I think we can all agree that the Oxford comma is called for in these two cases. As for Robert Downey Jr. and me … well, that’s a whole other issue.***
While you’re formulating your response (yes, I really want to know what you’re thinking!), enjoy this musical interlude:
* Note I didn’t write a “controversial” or “contentious” issue. Why not? As per AP: “All issues are controversial. A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.” My God, I love AP (#stylegods)
** Notice they didn’t write, “The issue is controversial.” Why? Hint: ^
*** You will never forget this whole bit about issues being inherently controversial. You’re welcome.
Got a question for Dear Megan? Ask away in the comments field below.