I love the Oxford comma. But not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, I love that a well-placed Oxford comma can clear up ambiguity.
Yes, I love that it costs the writer absolutely nothing to use that final comma in a list.
And yes, I love a rule that can be applied consistently. Leaving the Oxford comma out leaves room for potential ambiguity; using it rarely results in confusion.
But the biggest reason I love the Oxford comma is this: I love that this tiny little punctuation mark is the perfect symbol of just how creative, unruly, and inconsistent language can be. I love that it exemplifies how grammar is not simply a set of rules that one follows, but instead is comprised of endless decisions a writer can make, depending on purpose, audience, and genre. I just love that a comma can be so controversial.
In case you weren’t already familiar with the controversial comma, the punctuation mark known as the “Oxford comma” is the final comma that appears in a list or series. It’s also known as the “serial comma.” This quick little video will help you understand the Oxford comma’s history and where the controversy comes from.
As a writing teacher, I don’t have a strong opinion on whether or not my students use the Oxford comma. I truly do not believe it should be taught just one way or the other. Instead, I love teaching students about the controversy, and giving them space to debate the OC’s merits and uses, and encourage them to decide for themselves. The Oxford comma is a gift to teachers of grammar if we use it this way. It’s a perfect symbol for just how flexible and ever-changing language can be.
We (grammarians, teachers, writers) tend to think of the Oxford comma as an exception–as if all the other punctuation marks have been decided upon and set in stone. But in reality, every punctuation mark is equally as optional, equally up for debate, and can be used by a writer in whatever way best suits their purpose, audience, and genre.
There’s those three words again.
These concepts guide the decisions that writers make, and there’s no need to keep that a secret from students. When teaching grammar, we can teach students that the ultimate goal of writing is to communicate and be understood. Purpose, audience, and genre determine the decisions we make as writers, not a set of rules decided upon by a text book (at least, not all the time).
When deciding on whether or not to use the Oxford comma, ask yourself, what’s the purpose of this writing? Do I need to eliminate all possibility of ambiguity? Is it even possible to read the sentence incorrectly without the OC? Will using the OC distract, cause more confusion, or clutter up the page? Does the Oxford comma add clarity, or organization to the sentence? Can I it consistently throughout my writing?
Who is my audience? Am I writing for an academic audience that will expect I conform to a certain style manual (APA, MLA, Oxford, or otherwise)? Will my audience be distracted from my point if I use the OC, or if I don’t use the OC? (By the way – if I am your audience, I absolutely will notice if you leave out the Oxford comma, and I’ll think, “Huh. I wonder why they did that?”).
Typically, academic and journalistic writing needs to follow a style manual required by the particular discipline. In those cases, the writers don’t get to decide. They have to fulfill the requirements of their discipline in order to have their work taken seriously, to be published, and for consistency within their profession. But… if you are writing to entertain, or you are writing creatively, or in a voice of your own, then you make decisions that fit best with the genre and voice you are writing for.
If you teach students that are beginning to use commas somewhat successfully (perhaps 4th or 5th graders), you might do a mini-inquiry into the Oxford comma with them. Not because the OC itself is crucial, but because it contains the important lesson that grammar rules are not hard and fast, and can even be controversial.
For more interesting thoughts on the Oxford comma, try these:
A text set, from two points of view on the use of the OC:
A collection of many grammar resources:
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.