What is the purpose of this post, anyway?
Wayne and I were sitting next to each other reading over the same piece of text. I was picking out spelling and grammatical errors, relaying them out loud to Wayne as I crossed them. Suddenly, Wayne said, “Did you see where they are missing the Oxford comma?” This question excited me, because I, too, am a firm advocate of the highly-debated punctuation mark. After a short conversation, Wayne suggested, “Why don’t you write a post about the Oxford comma? I think it would be fun, and it’s nice to have all different types of content on the site!”
Now, I’m not a grammar freak; though some would argue that statement to be false.* However, I am a practical person, which I think most people who know me would agree on.** With these things in mind, let us continue into the depths of this debate.
What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the comma used before the words “and” or “or” at the end of a list. For example: “Every day I read from some books, BBC News, and Supply Chen Management.” The comma before the “and” is the Oxford comma. Some writing authorities and styles advocate for the use of it, while others say it does not matter. Therefore, the conclusion has been reached that the comma is optional. How a piece of punctuation can be classified as “optional” is mystifying to me, but I digress.
So what’s the fiery debate about?
The debate is simply this: There are those who argue that the Oxford comma is essential to include in any list that ends with “and” or “or”, while there are others who argue that the comma is not needed. Those in the latter camp would write my example sentence before as such: “Every day I read from some books, BBC News and Supply Chen Management.” This camp questions the importance of the Oxford comma in a list. After all, the words in the sentence didn’t change, and even the structure stayed the same. All we did was remove a tiny comma!
“Every day I read from some books, BBC News and Supply Chen Management.”
The reader would very easily be led to believe that the speaker of the sentence enjoys two specific books very much, every single day. To the reader, those books are named BBC News and Supply Chen Management.
So… why is it important?
Well, there are a few reasons. First, the Oxford comma is important because it denotes the final subject in a list. It also breaks two entities apart, which otherwise might appear to be part of the same group. Ultimately, it simply provides more clarity. Clarity is practicality, and, as mentioned before, I like practicality. The Oxford comma may be a small piece of punctuation, but it has an enormous impact.
Why do Wayne and I favor the Oxford comma?
Let’s go back to my example sentence, presented in the form that the naysayers would choose: “Every day I read from some books, BBC News and Supply Chen Management.”
The way that this sentence currently reads can be confusing. Let’s pretend that the person reading that sentence has never heard of the BBC News (based in the UK) or Supply Chen Management (which you’ve probably heard of if you’re reading this). The reader would very easily be led to believe that the speaker of the sentence enjoys two specific books very much, every single day. To the reader, those books are named BBC News and Supply Chen Management. Placing the Oxford comma before the “and” in the sentence clarifies that the speaker of the sentence enjoys reading a selection of books, as well as both the BBC News and Supply Chen Management. Wayne and I appreciate that clarification, because we certainly do not have a book (yet…?). Instead, we have a diverse, enlightening, and mostly-fun-to-read blog. As we take a moment to appreciate the use of the Oxford comma in my last sentence, let’s wrap up with a picture of a shirt that my brother bought me as a present from the Vancouver Aquarium. It illustrates the true power of a comma:
*No, Tim is most definitely a grammar freak 🙂 – Wayne
**He is most definitely practical – Wayne (again)