As complicated as the English language can be, most grammar rules are set in stone. But one piece of punctuation has divided grammarians: the Oxford comma.
Some style guides forbid writers from using it, saying the comma slows readers down. Others enforce the comma’s use for the sake of clarity. Considering recent cries of “fake news” and a growing distrust of the press, writers should use the Oxford comma, no matter their discipline.
The Oxford comma controversy starts with the style guides. The Chicago Manual of Style, American Medical Association (AMA), and American Psychological Association (APA) recommend using the comma in a series of three or more items. The Associated Press (AP), Canadian Press (CP), and the University of Oxford style guides dictate the use of the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.
A 2014 court case brought the debate out of the books and into the public forum. Not using the Oxford comma in a statement concerning overtime wages forced Oakhurst Dairy, a company from Portland, Maine, to pay three of its truck drivers an estimated $10 million, according to the New York Times. The statement said that the following actions did not qualify for overtime pay:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
Without the Oxford comma after “packing for shipment” the statement implies that workers would get paid overtime if they packed other products than agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods. With the Oxford comma, the statement accurately reads that packing any product for shipment does not qualify for overtime pay.
The appeals court said the lack of a comma caused “enough uncertainty to rule in [the truck drivers’] favor.” Oakhurst Dairy’s statement had been written following the guidelines of the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which prohibits the use of the Oxford comma, according to the New York Times.
An overuse of commas in writing has led to comma-slashing editors using their red pens to rid the world of unnecessary punctuation. But the Oxford comma has value. To ignore its purpose is to ignore the necessity for clarity when writing.
Some argue that the Oxford comma slows readers down, forcing them to pause when reading each item in a list. But having to reread a sentence because the lack of an Oxford comma causes ambiguity slows readers down even more. And, all punctuation affects a reader’s flow. Hyphens, parentheses, and semicolons make readers pause, indicating the relationships between information in a sentence. Without punctuation, readers would be lost in rambling fragments with little meaning. The Oxford comma functions the same way by distinguishing between items in a list. Using the comma slows readers down enough to fully understand what the sentence is saying.
Attacks on the validity of the press necessitate the use of the Oxford comma. In a time when legitimate news sources are labelled as biased lies and unreliable while fake news outlets are considered the truth, writers need to ensure that their words are clear and convey an accurate meaning. Using the Oxford comma rids news writing of the uncertainty that can come without it. In order to defend the press and regain readers’ trust, writers should do whatever they can to tell the truth as clearly as possible, even if that requires readers to slow down.
Using the Oxford comma every time a writer lists items avoids confusion, disagreement, and legal trouble. Punctuation may seem trivial, but without it, sentences have no structure. Writers should use the Oxford comma because punctuation matters. And because the Oxford comma keeps writing clear, cohesive, and cogent.