The Oxford Comma Conundrum

It may seem a wonder that all over the world, there remains a great divide as to whether or not the Oxford comma should be used. For the uninitiated, the Oxford comma refers to the last comma in a list of things—hence, its other name, the serial comma. Let’s take a look at this classic example:

I brought my parents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that your parents are Trump and Obama. There’s nothing wrong in that sentence, except for the fact that they—most likely—are not your parents, right? When we add the Oxford comma, that’s when things become a lot clearer:

I brought my parents, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama.

Let’s take a look at these other examples:

Margaret said that she went to work, gym, and then home.

Margaret said that she went to work, gym and then home.

Looking at these last two sentences, we can see that their meanings remain essentially the same. As such, the use of that extra comma is not necessary at all. So, herein lies the conundrum: should the Oxford comma be used or banned?

A Brief History

The first recorded use of the term “Oxford comma” was in Peter H. Sutcliffe’s book The Oxford University Press: An Informal History, published in 1978. In his book, Sutcliffe credits Frederick H. Collins (1857–1910) as the inventor of the rule. While Collins is generally thought to be responsible for other classical features of Oxford English such as the use of the –ize endings, he did also say that he did not come up with the rule for the Oxford comma on his own. After receiving letters from the Victorian philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who was also a contemporary of Charles Darwin, he decided to codify the usage of the Oxford comma:

(The late Herbert Spencer allowed me to quote from his letter.) … whether to write “black, white, and green,” or “black, white and green” — I very positively decide in favor of the first. 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…

So, Is It Required?

While the Oxford University Press and the Chicago Manual of Style advocate the use of the Oxford comma, the AP Stylebook remains iffy on whether or not it should be completely ditched (for the record, they do say that they do not explicitly ban its usage, but they do recommend to use it sparingly and only to maintain clarity). In terms of common usage, deciding on which style to follow will depend entirely on you or whichever style guide you are required to follow. If you remain unsure on how to apply that to your writing, let Lexcode’s professional editors help you! With our professional editing services, you can be sure that your articles, theses, research, or manuscript follows the style guide that you prefer.