The first assignment for my graduate-level Feature Writing course this semester was to write an essay about something you felt passionate about.
Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of things I'm passionate about, but I wanted to leave more substantial topics for our later assignments.
So I decided to write about the Oxford (aka serial) comma.
When we pitched our ideas to our professor and class (a scene that mimics the process writers take when sending an idea to a publication/editor), my professor howled with laughter. I was pumped.
This piece was so fun to write! Even if you don't care one bit about proper punctuation (UM YOU SHOULD), I hope this short essay is still fun to read!
Thank you to my former AP high school teacher, former English professor and adviser in undergrad, and a friend (whose text prompted the essay topic).
During my time as a writing tutor in undergrad, I watched students hand me papers riddled with commas. I’d cringe as they tried to adjust their sentences with a quick “Oh, I think I’ll put a comma here” in my general direction. I’d have repeat students who, despite the copious amount of explaining and examples I gave, still opted for the fast-and-reckless version of throwing as many commas as they could at a paper with the hope that the mere (although incorrect) presence of a comma would make them seem knowledgeable.
The comma in general seems to be the one punctuation mark that people just can’t seem to get behind or, more accurately, can’t seem to figure out. What we’re taught in the third or fourth grade—those simple grammar rules—seem to slowly evaporate from the general consciousness. Then, as adults, no one knows where a comma goes or what it’s even used for. Aptly put by The Oxford English Dictionary: “Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.”
These little dots with a tiny tail—almost like a smudge on the paper—are crucial. They signal a pause to the reader, they separate words in a list or group them together and, as Oakhurst Dairy learned in a legal battle, they prevent ambiguity. In 2014, three truck drivers sued the company, seeking overtime pay that the law seemed to say they were owed, due to the absence of a comma in a list of tasks.
Within the realm of commas, therein lies the grand-yet-infamous Oxford (or serial) comma. This bad boy is the real deal. He’s talked about so heatedly and with such passion. Writers, journalists, lawyers, marketing people and English professors debate his merits. When a sentence contains a list of words (such as red, blue, and white), the final comma before the conjunction is called the Oxford comma. His importance caused the aforementioned $5 million lawsuit. “The dispute gained international notoriety last year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers,” wrote Daniel Victor for The Toronto Star.
“USE IT, I scream at my Grammar & Rhetoric classes,” says Dr. Megan O’Neill, an Associate Professor of English at Stetson University. “My thing is, when even the tiniest bit of additional clarity can be achieved with so little, why not use it?” Dr. O’Neill also maintains the university’s Writing Program website, where the editors of the site, AP-style-using folks, routinely flag the use of serial commas as a grammatical issue. “I will exercise my voice, my platform, and my tenured security in the service of accurate, clear, unambiguous prose…which includes using the damn thing,” says Dr. O’Neill.
The anti-Oxford comma side rallies in throngs, exclaiming that these commas are unnecessary, that they clog up the sentence and can create visual ambiguity from a sentence becoming too hard to decipher. (To those people I say: Following the rules of proper punctuation and grammar, you should be able to read a sentence and have complete understanding if all the punctuation marks are used appropriately, no matter the amount present.)
Others understand and adhere to standard English rules, but remove the commas to make their language more complex. “While I still promote and encourage standard English, I started to realize that the language can be more beautiful, more impactful when we know when to break the rules for effect,” says Erin Turner, a high school English teacher (who has also taught AP language, journalism and yearbook).
Although I agree about deliberate stylistic decisions for the sake of prose and literature, the purposeful removal of a serial comma “because AP style says so” will never be a statement I can stand behind.
A friend of mine who just started law school sent me a text the other day that read: “The writing professor told us that if we didn’t use the Oxford comma, we are assholes.”
And since this paper is required to be written in AP style, I will go back and painfully pluck out any Oxford commas I have used, and despite my advocacy, I will become an asshole.