Ah, the Oxford comma. It’s the pinnacle of grammar controversy, even though there lies little argument for those opposed to the beloved punctuation mark.
Sure, you can argue that the Oxford comma is technically an optional punctuation mark; however, just because something is optional does not mean it should be regularly omitted or ignored. (You read text inside parentheses, don’t you?)
In written communication, punctuation is essential. What would we do without periods, question marks, and exclamation points? Well, let’s just say we would drown in blocks and blocks of text, yearning for any sign of organizational being to be able to extract a useful thought from a never-ending black hole of words. Punctuation exists to organize and clarify, and the Oxford comma is no exception!
The Oxford comma plays an essential role in the identification of lists and its items within. Items in a list are required to be separated with a comma, with the exception of the last item where the English language only requires a conjunction (usually “and”) to appear before it.
My question for you: why should we trust a conjunction to do the job of a comma? We don’t allow a fork to help us consume our bowl of soup. We don’t use a glue stick to construct the frame of our house. We don’t trust a unqualified, non-educator to lead our Department of Education, do we? Er, sorry, that last one wasn’t a good example. The point is: why do some people choose to let a conjunction identify the last item in a list? That’s the job of a comma.
Aside from personifying punctuation marks into having employment ventures, the Oxford comma really is crucial for clarification. It helps the reader determine exactly how many items there are in a list and clearly defines each list item as a separate entity. Consider the following sentences where one uses the Oxford comma and the other does not:
To prepare for the party, Bob purchased food trays, napkins, and balloons.
To prepare for the party, Bob purchased food trays, napkins and balloons.
The first sentence clearly states that Bob purchased three items for the party: food trays, napkins, and balloons.
However, the second sentence is cringeworthy from its ambiguity and empty feel from the lack of the Oxford comma. Did Bob purchase three items (food trays, napkins, and balloons) for the party? Or did Bob purchase very disappointing food trays consisting of napkins and balloons? Unless you personally know Bob or saw his status update on Facebook, you may never know.
I’ll tell you one thing though: a very simple keystroke of the comma key before typing “and” would have saved us all a lot of confusion and uncertainty. It also would have saved us from the imagery of scarfing down some dry napkins and helium-filled party decorations with Bob this coming weekend.
Save our digestive systems. Save Bob’s reputation. Use the Oxford comma.
About the Author
Brandan Oates is a fourth-year middle school teacher and graduate of Illinois State University.