It's quite surprising how deeply people seem to care about the Oxford comma.
The topic can spark heated debate among people who normally don't seem to care about this type of thing.
If you haven't already, it's time to pick your side.
Why do Oxford commas matter?
Oxford commas proceed the final 'and' or 'or' in lists of three or more items.
I'd like to thank my parents, Elon Musk and Stevie Nicks.
Looking at this sentence in isolation, it's reasonable to conclude that Elon Musk and Stevie Nicks are my parents.
But that would be a misunderstanding. This sentence is meant to thank four different people.
Adding a comma before the final 'and' can help to make this clearer.
I'd like to thank my parents, Elon Musk, and Stevie Nicks.
(I'm not sure what I'm thanking them for, but I love the idea of some kind of Fleetwood Mac gig in space.)
The internet is full of examples that show why adding Oxford commas can be an important way of helping readers make sense of lists.
They matter for businesses too. A misunderstanding about an Oxford comma cost an American dairy company $5 million in 2018. [New York Times]
But there are people on the other side of the argument who argue that Oxford commas are unnecessary.
Some say that if a list requires an Oxford comma, the writer must focus on improving their writing and rephrase what they're saying.
Some of these people hold the view that commas are ugly stains that must be avoided whenever possible.
It's about clarity
I write to be understood. Anything that helps to add clarity is a good thing.
I can't remember ever being angry about a writer using too many commas.
If I notice this, which can definitely happen in Dickens and other Victorian novels, I simply acknowledge this as part of the writer's style and return my focus to what they're saying.
Can you imagine how boring reading would be if everybody followed exactly the same rules about punctuation and grammar?
I love the fact that the English language leaves enough wiggle room for people to find what works for them. It's part of the fun of writing and reading.
My view on the Oxford comma
I use Oxford commas but don't hold any grudges against people who don't.
I appreciate the different ways that people string their sentences together. However, I do think it's important that writers pick a side and stick to it.
Given that this is such a polarising topic, switching back and forth can be disorientating and risks frustrating readers on each side of the argument.
© Oli Sharman 2021. All rights reserved.