Sense, Sensibility, and the Oxford Comma: A study in Grammatical Practicality


Carly Steckel

Emily Greenberg and Jake Landau

Print journalism is all about concision, clarity, and saving space.

Unnecessary, extraneous, and repetitive words and phrases, such as these three words and these two, should be avoided at all costs and measures.

One of the biggest and most wasteful space-taker-uppers is the Oxford comma, a technically optional comma which precedes the final conjunction in a list. These two copy editors, however, remain adamant in their promotion of this favorite little curl, for its use is an issue of clarity, style, and even necessity.

For example, consider the sentence, “I spoke to my parents, Alcmene and God.” Without the necessary Oxford comma before “and,” the sentence inaccurately and ambiguously communicates the idea that Alcmene and God are the parents of the speaker—namely, Hercules. Greek mythological heroes aside, this sentence is a clear indication of just how important the Oxford comma is.

Take a look at the improved sentence, with the required Oxford comma included: “I spoke to my parents, Alcmene, and God.” Now, it is immediately apparent that the speaker has talked with four separate people.

The Oxford comma is so named because its British collegiate namesake was the first to mandate it in the Oxford University Press. Indeed, the University’s teams are called “The Fighting Commas,” and just as this prestigious institution of higher learning fights for its grammatical and ethical beliefs, so do your friendly neighborhood copy editors fight for theirs. (It should be noted that this comma is also, sometimes, referred to as the “Harvard comma,” and anyone who doubts the combined grammatical weight of these two universities is, with all due respect, a diphthong.)

Generally, the Oxford comma is frowned upon in journalism as an extra character which takes up space without adding anything to meaning.

We respectfully disagree.

As communicated by the example above, the Oxford comma is sometimes necessary, often useful, and always nice to have.

We, your ready, willing, and able copy editors, promise to promote the appropriate use of commas by implementing them as much, often, and frequently as possible, for commas, such as the one following this dependent clause, are a staple of grammatical culture, say we.

Even now, the managing editor overseeing the production of this column looms over us, dark eyes boring into the Oxford commas used in this article, willing away their seemingly pointless existence.

But unless that editor’s parents are Alcmene and God, he has nothing to complain about.