Editing for Grammarphobes: To Use or Not To Use


It has been about a year since a press release by the Oxford University Press set off a firestorm of debate by grammarians over the usage of the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.

As you might recall, both Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style encourage it, while the Associate Press Stylebook recommends removing it, unless it makes the sentence difficult to understand.

Coming from the journalism world, I am for deleting it when the list is made up of only three items, such as in the following sentence.

In the summer, I enjoy Pimm’s Cups, margaritas and sangria.

No need to add another piece of punctuation, right?

However, when the list is much longer, or includes a phrase with the word “and” in it, I think the comma should stay.

Here’s an example.

The lunch menu featured turkey and avocado wraps, a cobb salad, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Not the greatest of offerings, I know, but gourmand preferences aside, if one leaves the comma out before the “and,” the sentence looks awkward. By using the serial comma, every offering on the lunch menu is a distinct item. The comma sets each apart visually, which works here.

What do you think? Which style do you follow?


Beverly Diehl said…
I'm an Oxford comma fan, because I now have horrific images in my head of what happens without one:

With and Without the Oxford Comma

That said, I tend to sprinkle in unnecessary commas here, there, and everywhere, as if I get bonus points for using them or something.
Beverly Diehl said…
Aaack. let me try to leave the link again, otherwise that makes no sense:

That's fantastic. I can see your point now.

And five bonus points for you and your five commas! :)
R. Doug Wicker said…
Huge, huge believer in using, "The Oxford Comma," and have been since before I ever heard of it by that name. That's the way I was taught way back in grade school back in the early '60s.

It just makes so much more sense to use it.
Kelly Hashway said…
I like using the comma. I think it makes the sentence easier to read. Besides, having taught 8th grade grammar, it's a rule that's been drilled into me.
angel011 said…
This is the first time I hear of the Oxford comma (or the serial comma, for that matter), but I tend to use it, because it makes the meaning of the sentence more clear.
Kiersi said…
I second Beverly's link! Also, I love commas. I use them to excess. To top off the Oxford comma debate, when doing stylistic prose writing, try knocking off the last "and"--just [item], [item], [item].

You can't get away with it ALL the time, but when you want a list to have emotional impact, it works well!

Great post.
Paul Venderley said…
I prefer the consistency of using the Oxford comma in all cases, even when a simple three-item list is involved. To vary usage dependent upon sentence structure, in my opinion, invites confusion.
Glad to see everyone weigh in on this. Paul, I guess I was just so used to doing whatever AP Style said (you know, when you follow, you follow all of it). Your point is well-taken about being consistent.

Kiersi, I know what you are taking about. I like to use that every once in awhile also.

R. Doug, angel011 and Kelly, I understand what you mean. When I had to switch to AP Style years ago, it took me a long time to drill a new rule into my head. Kept having to look everything up. Now, I think I have to reverse it! Oh, man! I hope my old brain is ready for this. :)
Alice Northover said…
Dear Karen Wojcik Berner:

I would like to submit a correction to your blog post "Editing for Grammarphobes: To Use or Not To Use" above.

Oxford University Press (OUP) didn't send out a press release igniting a debate on the Oxford comma. The debate originated with a blog post on GalleyCat that noted the University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate’s Writing and Style Guide urged writers to avoid the Oxford comma. (Oxford University Press is commercially and editorially autonomous.) However, there was great confusion in the media and some reports stated that OUP dropped the serial comma. OUP issued a press release in response to correct and clarify the information.

Hart's Rules (OUP's style guide) favors the use of the serial (Oxford) comma.

Further information can be found here:

Alice Northover
Social Media Manager
Oxford University Press
Thanks, Alice, for the clarification.
Deborah said…
I'm a comma fan too, though not a slavish Oxford adherent. When writing I always think of them as marking the natural pauses in the text that you would want if the words were being read aloud - mainly for clarity, but also for emphasis. If anything, I tend to edit some out later because the sprinkling looks too heavy on the page.

As ever here, a really useful and interesting post, Karen. This time with official input in the comments section!

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