Defending the Oxford Comma


I feel personally victimized by the Associated Press. I know I am dramatic, and maybe a little pretentious, but I am hopelessly devoted to the Oxford comma. For those who do not have to think about the rules of English grammar on a daily basis, the Oxford comma refers to the comma used after the penultimate item of list. Quite a trivial thing to get worked up over one may think, but we all pick our own battles.

I was first introduced to this peculiar punctuation mark in seventh grade. My language arts teacher taught me everything I know about how to use commas, and she strengthened my writing in a way that was not paralleled until my junior year of high school. Before that course in seventh grade I would throw away and miss commas in practically every sentence I wrote, but I grew to love punctuation (by this time my “nerdiness” has been exposed, and this argument can proceed with dorky vengeance).

My next encounter with the Oxford comma came at an ACT prep course. The instructor informed us that a sentence is correct with an Oxford comma or not, and my stance was made: I would use the Oxford comma for all of my days. This decision came about for a number of reasons.

First, I was, and still am, perpetually insecure about my grammar skills. With this mindset, I lean more towards overcorrection, hence the added comma. Second, I now had first-hand instruction of a grammatical rule, and I took it as ultimate authority. Case closed.

I was not forced to revisit this decision until I began my journalism courses and extracurriculars at SLU. It was then that I met my new best “frenemy,” the Associated Press Style Book. This book contains every rule and guideline for journalistic writing, from how to deal with names and numbers in a story to, yes, my beloved Oxford comma, which is never to be used in AP-style writing. Here I am, starting my career in the field of journalism, utterly crushed by the loss of this cherished comma. Nevertheless, I intend to fight on behalf of the inanimate punctuation mark.

The Oxford comma is practical above all else. It is sensible—a word I would not normally use to describe the English language. Triplets earned a smiley face in English class my freshman year of high school, so I tend to use them often in my writing. What goes best with a list of three? Well that would be the Oxford comma. Without the Oxford comma who would know if I meant to include three separate things, one thing and one compound thing (insert Oxford comma) or some other combination of terms? I love clarity. I believe words hold an incredible power, and—as we have all learned from Spiderman—with that power comes a great responsibility. In the same way that becoming an adult with great responsibilities requires precision and heart, the art of writing requires clarity and direction. Words matter, notions matter (insert Oxford comma) and interpretations matter.

Furthermore, as previously stated, I can acknowledge the fact that I enjoy a little pretentiousness in life. I am an artist, I like the cultivation perhaps even more than the end result. At an extreme it is a vice, but I believe that a little pomposity makes life more optimistic. The Oxford comma falls right into that sweet spot of upholding tradition and pomp without becoming greedy and gluttonous.

Let it be known that I understand the Oxford comma is literally nothing more than a bit of ink on paper. I know that “saving” the Oxford comma should not be the primary concern of the world. I even know that I am a little crazy for being so concerned about a punctuation mark. But in a world filled with danger, hate, uncertainty (insert Oxford comma) and violence, it is important to stand firmly with our opinions and ideals. We cannot let the world knock us around. We cannot view our thoughts as insignificant. We cannot stifle the movement that lives within every one of us. I have a voice, and I’m going to use it.