If you’re looking for a grammatical convention guaranteed to spark an unnecessarily outraged debate, look no further than the Oxford comma [Editor’s note: I don’t know that I’d call it unnecessary].
The Oxford comma, you see, isn’t just any old comma—it’s the comma that maintains lexical order and keeps things readable, or so its proponents believe. It warrants a capital O, for chrissakes. There are two arguments forming the opposing cores of the debate—but before you pick a side, you have to know what it is, how it’s used, and why it tends to rile people on either side of the grammatical divide. (Though if you’re reading carefully, you can tell which camp Lifehacker falls into).
What is the Oxford comma?
It sounds so fancy, like it was hand-crafted in an Ivy League grammar factory. The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma or series comma, is the comma placed before the final conjunction (typically an and/or) in a list of three or more items.
Or, as Oxford University (who else?) fittingly elaborates:
When you’re writing a list, you naturally include commas to separate each item, but an Oxford comma is when you also put a comma before the “and [Final Item]”.
Here’s an example of the Oxford comma in the wild:
He enjoyed drinking soda, reading comic books, and riding his Razor scooter.
Without the Oxford comma, this sentence would read:
He enjoyed drinking soda, reading comic books and riding his Razor scooter.
Ok, simple enough. But why do some of its proponents launch into hysterics when it isn’t used? And in what contexts is it traditionally ignored?
When is the Oxford comma used? (And when should it be?)
Newspapers typically omit the Oxford comma, but maintain caveats for when its inclusion is necessary for clarity. In the olden days—when print newspapers weren’t dying—newsprint provided limited real estate, meaning that even a teensy, perhaps unnecessary comma could spread a story into the margins.
But other than that specific, esoteric circumstance, there aren’t really clear rules dictating when it must be used. Rather, it’s basically a preference, with American English favoring it a bit more frequently than our UK counterparts. Many publications don’t strictly enforce the use of the Oxford comma, and only mandate its use when absolutely necessary for clarity.
Here’s a few examples of how it can be deployed effectively, courtesy, once again, of Oxford University:
They sent gifts to her sons, Kate, and Sophie.
Without the comma before the last conjunction, you’d be forgiven for assuming “her sons” are named Kate and Sophie.
Please can you fetch me some bread and cheese, orange juice and lemonade, and my throat sweets.
As the university notes, “without the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes harder to read because there are already other conjunctions grouping pairs of things that belong together as single items on a list.”
All of that seems fair, but what about sentences that don’t necessarily need a final, clarifying comma? Cue the debates (and the righteous handwringing).
Why is there a debate?
Basically, there are purists who think the Oxford comma should be an ever–present fixture in all grammatical contexts, and other people who think such strict usage is overkill.
One of the main arguments against the Oxford comma, in fact, is that certain sentences would be better reworded to remove the ambiguity the lack of a comma sometimes inadvertently creates.
To illustrate, here’s an example from Grammerly: The sentence “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty,” is certainly preferable to “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” But it could be restructured to say “I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.” The latter example is far less confusing, shattering any possibility of Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty possible raising a child together without over-salting the dish, as it were, with punctuation.
Either way you look at it, however, the Oxford comma definitely has its uses, despite being kind of superfluous at times. After all, it’s just a comma, so there’s no real need pen a treatise in support of its use in all contexts.