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August 2017

Is the Oxford Comma Really Necessary?

Finding the middle of the heated debate

For some time now there has been an impassioned argument online about the necessity of the Oxford, or serial, comma. The Oxford comma is the comma placed before the conjunction at the end of a list of things. For example, in “the flag was red, white, and blue”, the Oxford comma would be the one appearing before “and”. Proponents of the Oxford comma say it’s necessary for removing ambiguity in sentences. Of course, there are detractors as well, writers who vehemently oppose the use of the Oxford comma, seeing it as superfluous. So who’s right? It turns out that everyone is right, and everyone is wrong.

It’s all a matter of style

What many debating this argument fail to realise is that whether a writer chooses to use the Oxford comma or not comes down to style. Any worthy publication has its own rules for style, writing guidelines that their staff should abide to for consistency. Two notable style guides are the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP (Associated Press) Stylebook. The former uses the Oxford Comma, while the latter does not. Neither of these style guides are wrong; they are put in place to maintain consistency, which is more important than any one rule. Many publications that omit the Oxford comma, like The New York Times, also allow for its usage in cases where ambiguity is unavoidable.

“To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

Supporters of the Oxford comma often cite the above sentence as an example of how the omission of the comma before the conjunction can lead to ambiguity. Is the writer expressing a dedication to mom and dad, in addition to Ayn Rand and God? Or are Ayn Rand and God the writer’s parents?

Indeed, this sentence seems strange, but the truth is that no single comma can fix bad writing. The sentence could simply be rewritten as “to God, Ayn Rand and my parents” with no allowable confusion (at least grammatically).

There are no laws in language

Language is constantly evolving. What we deem proper English style and grammar today differ between the U.K. and the U.S., and they have changed in both countries over time. Would Shakespeare appreciate some of our words today? Perhaps not. The bottom line is that there are no set rules (indeed, some of the greatest writers master linguistic rules only to break them at their whim). If you’re a professional writer, what matters most is being consistent and, of course, being a good writer.

Do you use the Oxford comma? What are your thoughts? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning from around the world.

Picture: (c) Fotolia, Dron