The most controversial punctuation: Oxford comma

Journalists and public relations professionals write under the guiding light of the Associated Press. Every year, the AP publishes its style guide, and practitioners and future PR pros and journalism students are drilled with rules and editing exercises. There are many rules in the guide that don’t sit well with writers and editors alike, but if I had to guess what the most polarizing rule is in the entire book (all 656 pages in this year’s edition) is the use – or lack thereof – of the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma is so polarizing, the band Vampire Weekend used it as a song title and there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to celebrities’ opinions on the punctuation.

So, before we pick a side, let’s explore the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma and is used before a conjunction in a list of items. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and The Chicago Manual of Style utilize the comma, while the AP does not.

For example, “Casey works on Virginia’s Community Colleges, FastForward, and VCUarts.” It’s clear that I work on these three, individual accounts at Hodges. This sentence uses the Oxford comma but is not written in AP Style. But if I remove the comma to adhere to AP Style, then we get at the heart of the Oxford comma debate: clarity.

The debate

Using my example above, my fellow Hodgers know that the three accounts I listed are just that: three accounts. But if someone from Delaware was reading this, they may not know these three entities. In this case, the comma adds clarity that I’m on three accounts.

Without the Oxford comma, out of the context of higher education in Virginia, someone in Delaware may think FastForward and VCUarts are part of Virginia’s Community Colleges.

Let’s watch this TikTok example which visualizes this point of view:

Agree to disagree

I really liked the video below from TED-ed, which gives an equitable overview of the use of the Oxford comma. The video mentions a few arguments for no comma, including taking up space and creating just as much confusion. The video below implies the use of this comma in daily life is optional, while also noting having an option rule is weird.

And while Vox goes as far to say forgetting the Oxford comma is “wrong,” they provided some interesting history as to how the comma and its usage came to be.

When I polled my Twitter and Instagram followers, it seems like I’m a party of one. I’m ride or die no Oxford comma thanks to years of AP Style drilling in college. Do I understand the pro camp? Absolutely. But I’m a Goody Two-Shoes rule follower and what the AP says, goes.

Casey Prentice

A self-proclaimed organizational junkie and data geek who confesses to a secret desire to be a professional organizer, Casey enjoys account management, writing, editing and digital content strategy. Her agency work has helped clients like Virginia’s Community Colleges, VCUarts and Swedish Match.

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