7 Reasons I’d Wage War for the Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma: Give Me Clarity or Give Me Death

I ask every writer and editor I work with one crucial question: “What’s your opinion on the Oxford comma?” At times this has even been my conversation opener, because, much like religious nuts who won’t befriend those not of their faith, I just can’t bear people who don’t believe in the serial comma. I feel like spending time with anti-Oxford-comma-ists may cause me to break out into a terrible rash.

I don’t want to exaggerate my stance too much, but I would fight a war and massacre civilians (if needed, only if needed) in defense of my beloved comma convention. In fact, I believe that the world would be a much better place if we all switched over to consistent Oxford comma use. Here are the top seven reasons why I take such a strong stance.

1) Americans know the Oxford comma.

For the last thirty-plus years, anyone who received a public education in America was taught the Oxford comma as a standard. Americans are easily confused; let’s not throw a new trick at them. More importantly, if we’re going for clarity through consistency, it’s best to start from the most universal point. And no offense to the Brits, but you’re outnumbered five to one.

2) Serial commas are sanctified by CMOS (aka, “the one true style guide”).

In the 16th edition of CMOS, the serial comma entry states:

Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities [...] since it prevents ambiguity.

While the Associated Press does tend to have a monopoly in certain writing markets (by which I mean news), even press writers often turn to the conventions of CMOS because … well, CMOS just makes more sense a lot of the time. Many other territories, including fiction and web writing, are tending toward CMOS for just that reason.

In other words, serial commas are recommended by in the most broadly accessible and known U.S. style guide.

3) Oxford commas create accurate rhythm.

Yes, I’ll admit, in the original use of the comma a non-serial approach made a lot of sense: Commas were replacing the conjunctions being implied in a list. “Would you like a date with Scarlet Johansson or Angelina Jolie or Amanda Palmer or Amy Adams?” The commas simply replace the “ors,” and since the final list item includes the conjunction, the comma isn’t technically necessary. But writing isn’t about mere technicalities. It’s about communicating, and often about capturing how (intelligent) humans speak.

Studies have found that as little as seven percent of communication comes from your actual words. In face-to-face communication the majority of your message comes from tone of voice and body language. We become disembodied when we write, so it’s essential that we imply voice through reflecting actual human speech.

When you’re speaking you will pause prior to the final-item conjunction in a list. Therefore, the Oxford comma more fully reflects the rhythm of human communication.

4) Lists become more scannable.

What’s the average attention span for the typical human? Well, I’d Google it, but I just don’t have the attention span for that right now. But believe me when I say your content won’t be read carefully by most readers. It will be scanned through for essential points. This is also why headers, sub-headers, bold and italics, and bullet points are important.

By separating each item in the list with a comma, you’re making it easier for people to scan through that list without confusion. It is also more clear to a skimmer when a list has started, especially when the list is just three or four items, so that segment of your writing gets more attention.

5) Internal conjunctions become more clear.

Let’s look at the list of important scannability points I wrote in item four, above. If we were to write this without a serial comma it would look like this:

This is also why headers, sub-headers, bold and italics and bullet points are important.

Ow. That actually, physically hurt me.

Where does our list end? To your typical AP user, the “and” is going to signal the conclusion of a list. But what about the second “and”? What about the the way the first “and” functioned as connective tissue between bold and italics?  Is the last item “italic,” “bold and italics and bullet points,” or “italics and bullet points”? Even if readers understand the sentence, they will receive a false stop at the first “and.”

All this could have been prevented if the sentence had a sassy gay friend serial comma.

6) You don’t have to muck up the rules.

If we were to universally accept the Oxford comma, there would be no instances where you would suddenly have to omit the Oxford comma for clarity. However, in the current AP guidelines we’re told to:

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction. [...] Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases.

In other words, you should never use a serial comma with AP style, unless you should. To hold to the AP concept, we have to indulge numerous exceptions that make the rules as clear as Oppenheimer’s conscience.

7) The serial comma has grace and poise.

There are many instances when the non-serial version of a list simply looks bad. When you say, ”I ate apples, oranges and bananas,” you get the feeling that the list is tilted in one direction (which isolates those poor apples by shifting the sentence’s center of gravity to the right). It shouldn’t be tilted in emphasis, rhythm, syntax, or in any other way, yet omitting the serial comma gives an aesthetic that seems to shift the balance.

Are you thinking it’s strange that I want my words to look aesthetically pleasing, just be careful: There are lynch mobs of typographers who have razed cities for less offensive sentiments. If you’re not careful they may beat you to death with the bloody remains of the Papyrus font.

Yes, I believe in the Oxford comma. Yes, I would fight, die, and kill for the Oxford comma. Yes, I believe we should accept it as the universal standard. Serial commas increase clarity, balance, scannability, consistency, universality, and rhythmic accuracy, and they have received the blessing of top-notch editors and CMOS itself. In the end, the Oxford comma the only real choice.