What is the Oxford or Serial Comma Controversy?

To comma or not to comma?

What do you do when using a comma in a series?

Do you write red, white, and blue  or   red, white and blue?

The use of comma in a series or list of three or more items joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor) is hotly debated. Who knew this little punctuation mark could be a source of controversy, but it has been.

In an era where less is more, when people are communicating by emails, texts, tweets, emogis, and instant images, the use of a comma before the conjunction in a series is disappearing. This is certainly true in journalism where the Associated Press (AP) style book and other guidelines advise against the comma in order to save space – to pack in more news. (The news website Business Insider, though, reportedly does require tits use.)

The comma in a series is also called the serial comma, the Harvard comma, and more commonly the Oxford comma—the last two names derive from the usage manuals of the university presses (UP) at Harvard and Oxford which insist on the use of the comma in series. Interestingly, the Oxford comma is not used in the United Kingdom, Oxford University’s homeland, or in Canada or Australia.

In fact, the Oxford UP does not recommend use of the serial comma on its website. This caused quite an outcry in the summer of 2011. It turns out that for the website and for internal communications, the Oxford UP follows AP and journalistic conventions, except where its use would prevent confusion or ambiguity. For its publications, however, the serial comma is still required.

Gus Lubin, in his piece “The Oxford Comma Is Extremely Overrated,” is against the use of the serial comma. He argues that this “grammar snob’s favorite mark is just a waste of space,” preferred only because people learned this rule in school and believed as they were instructed that it reduces ambiguity.

Lubin goes on to cite the style book of friend’s law firm—one of the top five corporate law firms in NYC—that omits the serial comma—as a stylistic conceit of “publishing houses” and “unnecessary for precise language.” As further “proof,” he goes on to say that the law firm of another lawyer he knows also does not insist on it.

The practice of two law firms that omit the serial comma is hardly compelling evidence. However, Lubin does assert that the obscure cases where the lack of the serial comma creates ambiguity can be countered by equally obscure examples where its use creates ambiguity. In these cases, he says the language simply should be rewritten.

In defense of the Oxford comma, there are legal scholars arguing for its use. For instance, In Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012), former Justice Antoni Scalia and usage expert Bryan Garner take the position that the serial comma should be used.

In addition, Marie Buckley, in her blog, “A Lawyer’s Guide to Writing,” states the following: “The serial comma is always more precise. Because precision is essential in legal writing, you should always use the serial comma.  You’ll never offend anyone by using it and, in the legal world, a single comma can be worth a million dollars.”

Comma use can make a difference, indeed:  In a Maine case known as O’Connor vs. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a serial comma became the deciding factor in a $13 million lawsuit, filed in 2014 and settled for $5 million in 2017, because the court ruled that the sentence was ambiguous.

To comma or not to comma? Where do you stand in the controversy? You may not be doing legal writing, but you still have to make choices in your own writing about whether you’ll use the serial comma. Unless you have to follow in-house style rules dictated by a place of business or publication, comma choice is a matter of style.

FYI: In her piece for NPR, “Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe … For Now,” Linda Holmes offers a witty and balanced discussion of the comma controversy, as well as touches on other grammar and style controversies, such as splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.

For the rule on this and two other comma uses, check out my 3 Fundamental Comma Rules available on the Resources page.

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