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Writing • July 2016

Oxford comma cagefight: best practices for navigating grammar's great debate

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Oxford comma cagefight: best practices for navigating grammar's great debate

Samantha Farquharson
This article was contributed by
Samantha Farquharson

The Oxford comma. This little mark’s history is punctuated by hot debates, strong opinions, and spilled red ink in defense of both sides. Yet style manuals—and clients—still don’t agree. So what’s a copywriter to do?

Let’s enter the ring and settle this once and for all. I’ll take a look at the Oxford haters and the Oxford lovers, then weigh in on best practices for all you copywriters, readers, and grammar nerds out there struggling to decide.

In one corner: the haters

Who they are
The AP Stylebook, American newspapers, my high school English teacher

What they think
Haters say the Oxford comma creates unnecessary clutter on a page. They argue that any ambiguity can be avoided by changing the order of a list, instead of adding punctuation.

Ex: Change My parents, Ayn Rand and Godzilla to Ayn Rand, my parents and Godzilla

They also argue that the Oxford comma can actually add ambiguity in some cases, as in the sentence:
I love my son, Kanye West, and kumquats.

In one reading, this person has a questionable range of interests. In another, this person is Kanye West’s parent. Both options are possible. One is significantly more interesting.

In the other corner: the lovers

Who they are
The Chicago Style Manual, the US Government Printing Office, my other high school English teacher

What they think
Lovers say the Oxford comma is a useful tool that provides clarity in list phrases that would be otherwise ambiguous. Why rearrange a list when you can just throw a comma in there and make everything clearer? They see the Oxford comma as a small mark to make in the name of clearer syntax.

So, who wins?

Well, no one. Authorities on both sides of the comma debate have compelling arguments, and there isn’t technically a “winner.” Most grammarians will deem the Oxford comma as optional, but when you have to make a call:

  1. Stick to the style guide. Priority number one is staying true to brand. Does your agency, client, or company adhere to one style guide over another? Refer to your established standards to guide your comma decision.
  2. Stay consistent. Whether you decide to comma or not to comma, make sure you do so throughout the entire piece, deck, or campaign. Because comma haters and lovers agree: consistency is key.
  3. Given the choice, let the Oxford comma into your heart. Okay, comma haters, before you grab your pitchforks, hear me out. I’m not saying that using the Oxford comma is the only option. I’m saying that in most cases, it’s a harmless additional mark that avoids extra work and eliminates confusion. It’s like a grammatical safety blanket.

And, to address the comma-induced ambiguity argument, let’s return to the sentence:
I love my son, Kanye West, and kumquats.

I get it. Is Kanye West your son? Is he not? The world must know. But let me suggest, for these cases, using the highly-underrated semicolon. Semicolons are normally used to separate independent clauses, but they can also be used to separate items in a list that contain internal punctuation to avoid ambiguity.

I love my son, Kanye West; and kumquats.

Boom. Semicolons and Oxford commas, living together in harmony.