The Oxford Comma (Serial Comma): Often Necessary for Clarity
Updated: Nov 24
“We invited the strippers, Stalin and Hitler.” In this sentence, Stalin and Hitler seem to be the names of the strippers who have been invited to a party.
Now add one comma: “We invited the strippers, Stalin, and Hitler.” Now, Stalin and Hitler are attending, and so are the strippers.
Neither party would be my thing, but one is very different from the other.
The comma I added to the second sentence is the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. It’s the comma that appears between the last items in a list. During my 15 years in professional proofreading settings and my 11 years as a proofreader, I have seen it underestimated and underused. I can skip it when I have to, but as an editor who believe in clarity first, I am pro-Oxford-comma.
There’s a very catchy Vampire Weekend song that begins, “Who gives a f*@% about an Oxford comma?” I do, Vampire Weekend. I do.
In AP Style, the set of writing rules most commonly used by journalists, disallows the Oxford comma. The common argument I’ve seen is that the word “and” serves the same purpose and renders the comma redundant. However, the AP stylebook does stipulate: “Include a final comma in a simple series if omitting it could make the meaning unclear.” This happens more often than they seem to think, and it’s important to watch for.
If you can’t take it from me, take it from Oakhurst Dairy Company. Maine truck drivers sued this dairy farm after realizing that their contract implied they would receive much more overtime than they actually did, all because of a missing comma.
Here is the contract’s list of overtime exemptions:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Without a comma after “shipment,” it’s unclear whether “packing for shipment or distribution” is the exception or if “distribution” itself is an exception.
This case was settled for $5 million.
The logic behind eliminating the Oxford comma from sentences was a small cost cut on paper and ink when print newspapers reigned. In the digital media age, white space matters and the real estate of any given web page matters, but clear content matters more.
After so many years, if the AP Stylebook flipped their stance, making such a drastic change might cause brands to feel insecure about appearing inconsistent. I’m also sure there are writers who deliberately take advantage of the ambiguity this issue creates.
What do you think? How do you feel about this controversial little mark? I would love to hear from you in the comments.