UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – In defense of the Oxford comma

To comma or not to comma, that is the debate in the world of writers and writing teachers. Few grammatical issues get English teachers as worked up as the optionality of the Oxford comma. While many writers, educators, and organizations deem the use of the comma simply a style issue, one at the whim of the writer, others stand their ground on the sacrosanct necessity of the punctuation mark. In the professional world, the primary advice on using the comma is to simply be consistent. I, however, respectfully disagree.

For the uninitiated, the Oxford comma, also known as the “serial comma,” is the final comma before the conjunction in a list, or words in a series. For example, “I am a writer, a teacher, and an artist.” The final comma before the word “and” is the Oxford comma. As a traditionalist and a product of an old-school Catholic education, I’m an ardent, uncompromising proponent of the Oxford comma. Sister Brennan would never forgive me for deeming grammatical rules to be arbitrary and loose, the very antithesis a rule. 

For comma proponents, there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to eliminate the mark. In technical writing, or more specifically business documents and legal paperwork, the comma can be a game changer. For as long as I’ve taught English, specifically grammar mechanics and usage with an eye toward standardized test prep, I have always heard praise and support from one very specific group of parents – those who are attorneys. Commas matter a great deal in the legal profession.

I can’t tell you the number of times that parents who are lawyers make it a point to thank me for teaching grammar and specifically punctuation. As they tell me, in legal contracts a single comma added or eliminated can be of monumental importance. The example I always share with my students is specifically related to inheritance of property. 

Say three sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia – have rather wealthy parents who pass away after a long and illustrious life. At the reading of the will, the following is stated: “The estate shall be divided among Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia.” In that situation, family harmony is likely preserved when each sister receives an equal share of 33.3%. However, minus the Oxford comma when “The estate shall be divided among Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia,” there is a potential conflict if parties read that to mean Elizabeth receives 50% and the other two get 25% each. 

These hypotheticals, of course, have real world implications as well. That was the case in 2018 with a legal dispute in Portland, Maine between Oakhurst Dairy and its drivers. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the missing comma in a contract created enough uncertainty that the court must side with the drivers, resulting in the company paying out $10 million in settlement. There are numerous other cases of “costly commas” throughout legal history, and with such a precarious distinction, it poses the question of why might anyone leave the issue up to chance.

Some people speculate that the optional use of the comma began with the media, specifically print journalism. With the Associated Press Stylebook officially standing on the side of eliminating the comma, it seems the journalism field certainly has influence. The financial argument comes down to a matter of cost – eliminating the comma literally saves ink. To those outside the field, the cost of ink for a single comma seems miniscule and insignificant. However, when a publication like the New York Times prints millions of copies, that ink adds up. 

While eliminating the comma could save money on the front end, let’s hope they don’t end up losing far more in a legal dispute that hinges upon the presence of that punctuation mark. As an English teacher whose students take ACT, SAT, and PSAT tests, I’ll continue to encourage the use of the comma. In standardized test format, the serial comma has long been the standard. If they’re going to err on the side of caution, I advise using the comma.

Clearly good grammar and punctuation can save a lot of money. More importantly, though, it can even save lives. For example, don’t forget there’s a huge difference between the sentence, “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” And, of course, no one would think twice if they learned, “Joe likes cooking, his family, and his dog.” However, if they were to learn that “Joe likes cooking his family and his dog,” well then …

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com