First introduced by the Oxford University Press, the Oxford Comma (better known as the Serial Comma) is used before the word “and” in a list. British English does not use the Oxford comma, though it certainly has a clear purpose in helping to define the separate items mentioned in a list while eliminating confusion. My belief is that the serial comma should be used consistently, even if it doesn’t seem required by the sentence or list. Also known better to Patriots fans and New Englanders as the Harvard Comma, a majority of popular U.S. style guides advise to always use the comma, chiefly for the sake of clarity.
In my days as a sportswriter for a local newspaper, I followed a steadfast rule of always implementing serial commas in lists, more as a personal grammatical preference than to adhere to any specific set of style rules. In the spirit of sticking to AP Style, most of the time my initial written drafts of stories were revised and printed by the Sports Editor with simplified sentences that had removed commas in favor of the conjunction “and.” I stubbornly wrote my stories my way, always knowing that they were likely to be altered and touched up before going to print, and none of the edits, changes, or simplifications ever bothered me, at least grammatically, aside from the elimination of serial commas. Because I knew that I had no say on final copy at that time, I never argued any of the edits that were made; seeing my name in print was enough satisfaction, at the end of the day, since this was my first real job after graduating from college. But it always quietly bothered me that the stalwart editors in our department were so quick to remove commas from my stories. The lack of commas, in my opinion, left the stories reading too fast and without any pauses or changes in rhythm. The changes the editors made were by no means incorrect, and I viewed the editorial decisions as part of a career learning experience, but I never shook the feeling that eliminating serial commas from my stories seemed to leave certain sentences uneven and imbalanced, and I, like any writer, often cringe when I see my name attached to something not as I originally envisioned it.
Often in AP Style (the foundational style guide in the journalism world) commas are typically used in pairs, or not at all, often ignored in long compound sentences that are instead connected by repetitive, fast-paced uses of the coordinating conjunction “and” as in “Tom Brady panicked and threw a short pass and fell to the ground as several defenders sprinted in his general direction.” The problem with these types of AP sentences is that they lack variety and an authenticity of voice, sounding as if every word is part of a suspenseful attempt to recreate a sports broadcaster’s play-by-play intensity. Most of the sentences in my final articles recapping Friday night football games and lacrosse tournaments sounded like the example above, as if someone were reciting the highlights of each contest and by the end of the story had to be gasping for breath. The bottom line is that all commas, including the Oxford comma, possess the power to completely change the meanings of sentences.
For example, the Oxford comma helps to separate items in a list:
I love my sisters, Peggy, and Joan.
But if you remove the last comma, the entire meaning of the sentence changes, and reveals that the names mentioned are identifiers of “who” the sisters are, rather than individuals or parts of list:
I love my sisters, Peggy and Joan.
Which could also be read or translated as:
I love my sisters, named Peggy and Joan.
The Oxford comma also helps eliminate confusion from lists, so that certain descriptions cannot be misunderstood when being read. Look at the sentence that follows and what it reveals when excluding an Oxford comma:
The best players on the team are the two big guys, Ricky and Tom.
Ricky and Tom are the actual names of the “two big guys” mentioned. Now look at this example:
The best players on the team are the two big guys, Ricky, and Tom.
Now we’re no longer looking at Ricky and Tom as an extension of the big guys, but as two separate individuals in addition to the unnamed big guys, totaling four people, and creating our list—quite a big difference, all the result of that one little additional comma.
The most important rule to keep in mind is that when it comes to matters of style, especially with commas and in particular the Oxford comma, consistency is key: it doesn’t make sense to use the Oxford comma in
an email newsletter only to drop it when writing press releases or blog posts. Style guides help provide writers with rules and direction to make a finished work organized and cohesive, but regardless of the style guide, the most important and universal style principle to remember is that consistency trumps above all else.
By Collin Myers