The Oxford comma has been called the world’s most controversial punctuation mark. It is the subject of viral memes and fierce online arguments, and it must be the first piece of punctuation in history to become a dating cliché. “Defender of the Oxford comma” is now right up there with “enjoys long walks on the beach” and pictures of dogs in online profiles. This minor mark has sparked a debate whose intensity is incommensurate with what it actually does, and doesn’t do, in sentences.
This comma, also called the serial comma, is placed before and at the end of a list: “I like dogs, the beach, and the Oxford comma.” Many style guides advocate its use, particularly those favored by academics. Other styles, such as that of The Associated Press, which is typically followed by newspapers, recommend against it. The Monitor, which generally follows AP style, has chosen to keep the comma for clarity. Though Oxford University Press lent its name to this comma and considers it a hallmark of its style, it is actually much more common in America than in Britain.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter whether the comma is there. The meaning is clear whether you say “apples, oranges, and melons” or “apples, oranges and melons.” Debate arises from the rare times that its presence or absence creates ambiguity.
Imagine an Oscar speech: “I’d like to thank my two hairdressers, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.” How many people are being thanked here? Four (two hairdressers plus Brad and Julia)? Or just two (Brad and Julia did your hair)? A rigid policy of using the Oxford comma would eliminate ambiguity here. But such a policy would actually increase ambiguity in other cases: “I’d like to thank my hairdresser, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts.”
The debate is about more than clarity and style. The comma has become a social signifier, a way to tell others about yourself. Mentioning it signals that you are educated and that you care about language. The only real rule is to make sure your commas reflect your meaning. The Maine Legislature forgot this when it followed its style guide (“no Oxford commas”) at the expense of clarity while drafting the state’s overtime law in 2017.
Workers involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of goods did not receive overtime pay. A Maine dairy interpreted “packing for shipment” and “distribution” to be two activities, and thus did not pay its drivers overtime. The drivers sued, arguing that “packing for shipment or distribution” referred to only one activity – packing – and that they were due overtime. The court sided with drivers, and they got a $5 million settlement. The whole thing could have been avoided if legislators had used an Oxford comma.