Why You Should Care About the Oxford Comma
April 26, 2017
I get asked every so often what all the hullabaloo is about the Oxford comma, also known as the serial or Harvard comma. I not only use it but am an adamant supporter. Why?
First, let’s look at what the Oxford comma is — the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, I went to the store yesterday and purchased eggs, milk, butter, and chocolate.
Other than being required by the Oxford University Press, most people don’t know much about the history of the Oxford Comma. Okay, I’ll admit — some don’t care. But for those who are continually embroiled in this debate, here is a little historical perspective: While the first time the Oxford comma (referenced as such) pops up is 1978, the concept appeared in 1937 when The New York Times recommended restraint (and still does except when needed for clarity) and again in 1966 when Modern American Usage required it. But, this pesky little piece of punctuation was debated long before that by one of Charles Darwin’s chums, Herbert Spencer, who wrote (based on the example of black, white, and green vs. black, white and green):
“To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.”
There is so much hoopla over this little comma that the rock band Vampire Weekend named a song after it, people debate about it all over social media, and, in the great state of Maine, a legal battle recently brought our little comma to the focus of the plaintiff’s argument. Three truck drivers sued a dairy company for overtime pay. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in their favor — with the lack of the Oxford comma, the dairy company’s rules on overtime pay were unclear. The sentence read as follows:
“the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution…”
Without the comma after “shipment,” it could be interpreted to mean that the employees were exempt from overtime pay for packing for shipment or packing for distribution, but the act of distribution was not exempted.
This debate isn’t going to end anytime soon, but I will continue to use it and expect my students to use it as well.
After all, one would be foolish to suggest one’s parents are Mother Theresa and Barack Obama when they write, “I was inspired by my parents, Mother Theresa and Barack Obama.”
Oxford commas rule!
Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies