EDITORIAL: To use or not to use? The Oxford comma

Editor’s Note: The editorial board could not come to a consensus on the subject. Therefore, two editorials are running representing the split opinions of the staff.

Long live the Oxford comma

Gabriela Carballo and Daniel Schwalm

Clarity, consistency, and simplicity. That’s what the Oxford comma provides. 

Also known as a serial comma, it is the last comma in a series. In a language full of inconsistencies, it’s a rare spark of logic and simplicity.

Whether or not to use the Oxford comma is a controversial choice that plagues newsrooms worldwide. Here at The Maroon, we had a heated argument on whether or not we should use it. Those with good taste said the comma adds clarity to a series. 

Those with bad taste said not to use the Oxford comma, but what they actually mean is to only use it in certain circumstances. The Associated Press Stylebook, the grammar stylebook commonly used by journalists, says not to use the comma UNLESS omitting it can lead to confusion or misinterpretation. So everytime you write a series, you have to decide whether or not you are able to omit the comma.

That could be a five million dollar decision. 

In 2014, three Maine dairy truck drivers sued the dairy company for four years’ worth of overtime based on the lack of an Oxford comma in their overtime exemption description.  The company settled for five million dollars after the United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the truck drivers and, subsequently, the Oxford comma.

Even the courts side with the serial comma. 

The Oxford comma makes our writing more accessible. As journalists, we’re taught to write stories that are as easy to understand as possible. The average American reads at an eighth grade reading level, and good news writing is sensitive to that. 

Unnecessary debates about the Oxford comma are not common. In fact, they are almost entirely unique to the Associated Press Stylebook, which, in spite of claiming to prioritize simplicity and clarity, has a rather ridiculous set of rules about Oxford commas.

Other style guides don’t have this problem. MLA, APA, and Chicago style simply say to always use the serial comma. William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” often considered the definitive style guide for English writing, says that it makes writing clearer and should always be used. No exceptions.

All this to say: omitting the Oxford comma is often confusing. However, it is never confusing to include it. So if it’s often necessary and never wrong, why not just go ahead and always use it? 

If there’s a hill we’re willing to die on, it’s that the Oxford comma is always the answer.


Death to the Oxford comma 

Gabriella Killett 

This is not a popular argument, but it is correct. It is not a serious debate, but it is a die-hard one. And the Oxford comma is not a necessary punctuation mark. It is an excuse.

The Associated Press says so, which means nearly every editor and journalist says so, which means the world, if the proverbial universe wants to improve its writing, should also say so. 

Oxford commas exist for the sake of punctuating a series. They exist to separate bits of information for the sake of clarity. But in journalism, which aims to reach the most people far and wide, clarity is not the priority. Brevity is. 

The Oxford comma is an excuse because it allows a writer to be less concise. The comma might allow someone to write, “Sally plays piano, guitar, and drums,” instead of “Sally is a musician,” considering that Sally’s musical talents aren’t central to a story, of course. 

People get caught up in the details. The kinds of sentences that might warrant the Oxford comma are likely not the sentences our audience has time to read. Why write “Sally plays piano, guitar, and drums” when the story is “Sally, a musician, was carjacked Tuesday morning”? (This is a wild example, of course.) But what about writing “Ben went to the beach, played in the sand, and walked home” versus “Ben took a trip to the beach”? It’s the same argument.

The examples have a point. Brevity rules over clarity in journalism. Not to mention, newspapers don’t have space for the Oxford comma. If it isn’t absolutely important to understand a story, which it nearly never would be, why use ink and paper to print it? We need all the space we can get for news. What about saving the planet? No Oxford commas means less ink and paper spent printing, meaning less resources strewn to the conglomerate that is the publishing and printing world.

Also, the Oxford comma makes a story drag on, and as writers, we’re already fighting for everyone’s time every second of every day. We compete with distractions, and we struggle to win. So why are people still using the Oxford comma and making the game harder on themselves? 

The answer to the most recent question is simple, though. It’s more difficult to write tightly, but it is also beyond necessary. 

So, stop using it. You’re making your reader pause to get the whole story. Every single letter should count, and the Oxford comma makes us lazy. 

Instead, start making time to self-edit so that the limited time your audience has is spent on your written word.

The Oxford comma is not news. We don’t have time for it. We don’t have the space for it. It’s time to move on, comma junkies. Why aren’t more people complaining about the em dash? The semicolon? This one’s a non-starter.