To Oxford or Not to Oxford?

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you on this Friday in May. Can you believe it’s the middle of the month already?

My last few posts have been more on the “how to” level. Today I thought I would write something a little lighthearted, although the subject has become controversial among many writers.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best at punctuation. For instance, those pesky little commas often get the better of me. It’s been a long time since I was in school, and English wasn’t my favorite subject. Do I always insert a comma before a conjunction? Or only when each part can be stand-alone sentences? Not to mention all the other rules that come with its usage.

But there is one thing I’m staunch about the use of, and that is the Oxford (or serial) comma. Consider the following:

  • I invited my parents, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono.
  • I invited my parents, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Can you see the difference? One small comma changes the meaning of the sentence. If you don’t get it, I’ll just say Sean Lennon is the only one who would be accurate in using the second sentence.

Ask a dozen different writers, and you’re likely to hear strong opinions for both sides. Many writers are adamant about the use of the serial comma, while others don’t see the need. Even style manuals disagree. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using it while AP Style (the manual most often used by newspapers and magazines) does not.

This came from a newspaper article written several years ago:

  • Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

Was Merle Haggard married to Kris and Robert? No, but the way the sentence is written makes it appear he was. Maybe newspaper reporters should reconsider which style manual they use.

Here’s another:

  • The giveaway we’re most excited about involves $1,000, bringing Christmas to orphans in Uganda and Instagram.

Do you know of any orphans living in a country named Instagram?

While the examples I gave are humorous, there is no real harm done. However, a Portland Maine company wishes someone had used the Oxford comma in a legal document. Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy filed a $10 million lawsuit regarding overtime pay.

The suit concerned an exemption from Maine’s overtime law that states it doesn’t apply to “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” foods.

Notice there is no comma in the section, “packing for shipment or distribution of foods.” Drivers said the words referred to the activity of packing and shipping, but they don’t do any packing.

An appeals court upheld the suit, and Oakhurst eventually settled out of court for $5 million. A rather costly oversight of the use of one small comma.

Do you use the Oxford comma in your writing? What are your thoughts on its use? Please share in the comments.

63 thoughts on “To Oxford or Not to Oxford?

  1. I use the Oxford comma, and whenever I encounter someone telling me how “incorrect” I am to use it, I write snarky posts about them on my blog. 🙂 I don’t mind (much) if someone else chooses not to use it, as long as meaning isn’t lost and as long as they don’t insist that I’m wrong. (Why are we even arguing over this comma usage, when so many writers — and editors, who really ought to know better! — can’t even bother to learn the ones that CMoS and the AP Stylebook agree on?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you on all points! I’ll defend the Oxford comma but if someone doesn’t use it, it’s their choice and who am I to argue? (Even though their writing doesn’t make sense. LOL)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: To Oxford or Not to Oxford? — Story Empire | When Angels Fly

  3. This is why lawyers are so pedantic about language, Joan. I think that the USA is the only country in the world, though, where the drivers would have won that case. Litigation in the USA is fascinating. I do my best with commas but sometimes makes mistakes which my mother often picks up when she proofs my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit that I would have questioned that lawsuit. I miss a lot of commas also (and insert some I shouldn’t) but the serial comma isn’t one of them. If I miss it, it’s purely unintentional.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oxford has been etched into my mind since I was a kid, but my son sends me his college papers to edit and he never puts them in. Who knew a little mark could change the meaning completely?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think grammar and punctuation, in general, have become more casual in the past few years. But I can’t see not using the serial comma. I’ve heard of books being written without quotation marks these days. I can’t imagine!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this, Joan, and especially enjoyed your examples. I never really concerned myself with the Oxford comma until a few years ago when I suddenly took notice. Like you said, it can make a huge difference. Now I make an effort to consistently use it, although I will admit there are times when it eludes me. I just—gasp!—forget. I’m making a studious effort to be better about it. Fun post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I trust the Chicago style manual more than any other source, but I have to admit that commas are my adversary. 🙂 I use Grammarly but, like you, I often argue with it. To me, a comma indicates a pause or a stop. I know that isn’t the proper guideline to go by, but it makes sense to me. Thanks for sharing, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yikes, that is a huge price to pay for missing a comma! I admit, I’m comma-challenged:) Everytime I think I have it down, I find out I don’t…lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m all for the series comma. I never understood why some people wouldn’t use it. But like you, I’ve forgotten many of the rules I learned in English, and I seem to be overly fond of commas:) So I have to watch myself so I don’t use them too abundantly.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a staunch supporter of the Oxford comma. For all the reasons you mentioned and one mildly obsessive one. I hate applying rules that are conditional. “Omit the comma unless you need it for clarity.” First of all, clarity itself is ambiguous. Second, if you write several lists and some use the comma and others don’t, it’ll drive me nuts. I want everything the same. (Yep, told you. I have a touch of OCD and it’s rearing its ugly head at this.) Much easier to apply the comma everywhere and be consistent.

    Newspapers eliminate it because space matters. (Foolish to let space dictate punctuation, but whatever.) The Chicago Manual of Style is the one most fiction editors use, and they use the comma. And space matters to them, too, but to a lesser degree. In any event, I’m for clarity and consistency. I’m pro-Oxford.

    Love this post, Joan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Another thing we have in common. Well, two things. The Oxford comma and OCD. 🙂

      And you’re right. Define clarity. What’s clear to one reader may not be to another one. I say Chicago Manual of Style all the way!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Check out today’s Story Empire post, wherein Joan Hall discusses the use of the Oxford comma. It’s a great reminder of just how important punctuation is in our writing, especially when using it incorrectly can completely distort an author’s intent. Check it out, and then please consider passing it along to others, thanks, and thanks to Joan for another super post! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am 100% in agreement with you, Joan. A missed comma can completely change the meaning of an entire sentence, as you demonstrated above, and sometimes it’s not quite so easy to decide what was actually intended. To leave out that comma intentionally seems downright thoughtless to me, and I can’t understand why any writer would want to do so, regardless of style manuals. Surely punctuation should help clarify what we write, not add confusion to the interpretation. Just my thoughts, of course, but you’ll never catch me deliberately NOT using the Oxford comma.

    Great post, and great reminder of what a difference punctuation can make! Sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m definitely for the Oxford comma. It annoys me to no end when I read a book, or anything else, without serial commas. The times I end up having to reread a sentence to get the intended sense of it, lols! Of course, it’s everyone’s personal choice. Thanks for a fun post, Joan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you. It annoys me to no end to see the serial comma omitted. But it’s funny in that people who don’t use it, often don’t seem to understand the importance and why it changes the meaning of a sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

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