Why are we ignoring Oxford commas?

An insight into the Oxford comma - perhaps the Marmite of linguistics.

Why are we ignoring Oxford commas?

Clear, functional, and simple. What’s not to love about the Oxford comma?

I’ve seen so many people ditching the Oxford comma, and about half as many publications deeming its use as ‘optional’. Now, I’m very aware that not every clause calls for a slew of commas, but why are we actively shunning a linguistic framework that has never failed us?

The debate surrounding the Oxford comma is age-old, with evidence showing that back in the 1930s, New York editor Harold Ross often exchanged strong words with humourist James Thurber. The disagreement in their punctuation stances was often the subject of chronic antagonism back and forth between the pair, proving that even within the industry, and even 90 years ago, the oxford comma was, and remains, a touchy subject. 

In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook realigned their stance on the Oxford comma in a way that reduces its relevance and belittles the power that it can have over a sentence. Not only can they be a great source of clarity (notably with previous instances of court verdicts resting on the structure of a sentence, but more on that later), but they can also be used to enhance literary qualities, such as rhythm, direction, tone, and flow. What I fail to understand is why people are so keen to phase it out – it takes an equal amount of time to implement, makes the sentence easier to understand, and creates a nice rule of thirds in the process. I could understand if the concept was complex, but for the most part, it mirrors the way we speak. 

As previously mentioned, the Oxford comma has, at times, been crucial to the verdict of court cases. The ambiguity that the punctuation can alleviate in certain sentences can be pivotal. This was certainly the case when US brand Oakhurst Dairy contested an overtime payment clause set out by Maine State Law in 2017. The court ruled in favour of Oakhurst, insisting that the lack of Oxford comma caused too much ambiguity in the statement “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…”. The issue with this is that whilst Oakhurst provided delivery, they were not responsible for packing shipments. The lack of separation between the ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution of’ in the clause appeared to group the two together, rather than the correct structure of separating the two. 

So, for a principle so simple, the Oxford comma is often overlooked, discarded, or ignored. There is such nuance in the applications of it, meaning writers around the world underestimate the power it can hold. Even beyond that, I doubt anybody would contest that a sentence containing the Oxford comma simply reads better than a sentence that doesn’t.

I’m not some descriptive linguist that views language change as a curse upon humanity. I just think that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss one of the greatest linguistic tools under our belts.  I’m all for flouting useless, antiquated rules. And so, on that note, next time Vampire Weekend ask “who gives a f*** about the Oxford comma?”, I will meet them with a very enthusiastic response. I give a f*** about the Oxford comma.

Header Image Credit: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Author

Lucy Evans

Lucy Evans Kickstart

Media Sub-editor at Voice. Sign language enthusiast, frequent gig attendee, cloud enjoyer, artist, and volcano lover. I love bees.

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1 Comments

  • Elle Farrell-Kingsley

    On 16 March 2022, 18:47 Elle Farrell-Kingsley Contributor commented:

    Perhaps the next one in this series could be the Em Dash?

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