The case against the Oxford comma

Illustration of Obama, Mother Teresa, and oxford comma
Lucy Yang/Staff

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When people take a stance in the Oxford comma debate, more often than not, they argue in favor of the Oxford comma. A quick Google search returns thousands of articles and blog posts defending the punctuation mark, which is also known as a serial comma. While the Oxford comma is technically grammatically correct, it is most often unnecessary and pointless. Thus, writers and editors should eliminate the comma unless it is absolutely essential for comprehension.

The most common defense of the Oxford comma uses a sentence structured similarly to, “I would like to thank my parents, President Obama and Mother Teresa.” While it’s true that this sentence, without the Oxford comma, implies that the speaker’s parents are President Obama and Mother Teresa, a simple reordering of the list clears up any confusion. Even with an Oxford comma, the sentence could be misconstrued without careful reading. Furthermore, in cases like this one, readers should have the common sense to know that President Obama and Mother Teresa physically could not be the speaker’s parents.

Of course, there are cases in which an Oxford comma is necessary for clarity. For example, in a court case involving the Maine dairy company Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of an Oxford comma allowed workers to sue and win $5 million. But if the Oxford comma is unnecessary, there is no reason to use it. Making the decision to omit the Oxford comma and only use it when necessary appears more intentional and educated than the decision to use the Oxford comma and omit it when necessary — and there are cases in which it is necessary to omit the comma.

In a list that includes both singular proper nouns and singular common nouns, an Oxford comma easily misrepresents a proper noun and a common noun as the same subject. For example, in the sentence, “The individuals at the party were the restaurant owner, the bartender, Mr. Jones and Ms. Doe,” with an Oxford comma, one could infer that Mr. Jones is the bartender. Unlike the example with President Obama and Mother Teresa, reordering the list would not make the sentence more coherent. Regardless of the order, a proper noun and a common noun would be next to each other in a list, and an Oxford comma would allow readers to mistake one as a clarification of the previous noun.

Another reason to skip the Oxford comma is to save time, both for the writer and reader. Omitting the punctuation mark saves the second it takes to write or type a comma, which may not seem like much in one instance but can still easily add up. Additionally, as readers, our brains are trained to pause when we see commas. This is helpful when reading compound sentences and appositives, but futile when reading two phrases that are already separated by an “and” or “or.”

The next time you’re tempted to write an Oxford comma, perhaps consider whether that punctuation mark is truly necessary; if, as I suspect, it’s not, add a space and continue with your conjunction of choice.

Jocelyn Huang is a deputy night editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jocelynxhuang.