Writing | The Great Comma Controversy

The internet is aflame with controversies. The economy, unemployment numbers and the upcoming election come readily to mind.

While these battles rage, let’s turn our attention to another online brouhaha: the Oxford comma controversy.

What is an Oxford comma, you ask, and why is it so controversial? Here’s the situation in a nutshell.

The Oxford comma is that pesky piece of punctuation inserted before the “and” in a simple series. (Yes, I know. What the heck does that mean?) Two examples should make it clear:
With the Oxford comma: Tom bought a camera, case, and lens.
Without the Oxford comma: Tom bought a camera, case and lens.
The three items (camera, case, lens) create a simple series. The Oxford comma is highlighted in yellow.

Most of us were taught that grammar rules demand the insertion of that second comma, which grammarians sometimes call the Harvard comma or serial comma.

Look at the second example, the one without the Oxford comma. Is the sentence confusing? Does the missing comma change the meaning? Does your mind grind to a halt in an effort to decipher the message?

Ah, I can see by the show of hands the missing comma did none of these things.

English grammar is filled with all sorts of rules, some of which make sense. The Oxford comma rule is not one of those rules.
Writing in the real world is about impact and the importance of conveying useful information with clarity, precision and focus. Well-placed commas can help you achieve these goals, but in the real world, the Oxford comma serves no practical purpose.

It's unnecessary, superfluous and non-essential. So keep things simple and skip the Oxford comma.


Anonymous said...

Well, I am glad that is settled. But, every once in awhile I may cough up an extra comma just to rebel.

Barbara Spencer Hawk said...

Keep me posted, and I'll do a follow up article on the Great Comma Rebellion. Commas may be small, but they're mighty.

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