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Lesson 9: Punctuation Variation - The Oxford Comma


We all tend to latch on to some of the early things we were taught, and then stick to these things, often passionately, just because. Also, even if you’re not interested in this serial comma, the Common Core State Standards are. It shows up here for fifth grade: but is asterisked as one of those “Language Progressive Skills“ that “are particularly likely to require continued attention in higher grades as they are applied to increasingly sophisticated writing and speaking.” They suggest revisiting this skill in grades 4-8. That seems really strange to me since it’s so straightforward. I guess it’s the lack of a clear yes or no/right or wrong strategy that bothers people.


So you know the scoop: there are two ways of writing items in a series, with either a comma before and or no comma before and (or other conjunctions).


          The kid ate the bread with a peanut butter, jelly, and a banana.

The kid ate the bread with a peanut butter, jelly and a banana.


It’s the comma after jelly that can either be there or not, depending on who told you how to do it originally. That really seems to be how people decide - whatever they were taught first is what they stick to. So this comma is sometimes called the Oxford comma because Oxford University Press uses it - and they’re very fancy, so maybe that’s a good reason to go with it. Then again, those Brits do other funny things with punctuation, like put the “end punctuation” outside the quotation marks. (Wait, that actually makes a lot more sense.) So what do American style guides say? The Chicago Manual of Style recommends its use, while The Associated Press Style Guide (and therefore most journalistic writing) says to avoid it, unless doing so results in ambiguity. Consider the following sentence:


            I went to the LSA meeting with Anne, a linguist, and a horseback rider.


This is ambiguous, of course, because it is not clear whether a linguist is an appositive describing Anne, or is the second person in a list of three different people. When we remove the final comma, we lose the possibility that a linguist is an appositive, but still have the possibility that we have three separate people attending the meeting.


            I went to the LSA meeting with Anne, a linguist and a horseback rider.


And we now have the possibility that Anne is both a linguist and a horseback rider (and in fact, if you know Anne, she is), so there is ambiguity both with and without the final comma. We can, of course, change the wording to remove the ambiguity.


And this particular Anne and I are good examples of the two different acceptable standards here. I’m a consistent user of the Oxford comma, and Anne is a consistent user of the no Oxford comma. We write a lot of things together, so I put them in and she takes them out, or she leaves them out and I put them in, and then we have to wait for some copyeditor to make the call.


Activity: A good activity for this funny little punctuation rule is to go on an Oxford comma (or lack thereof) treasure hunt to see where it appears and where it doesn’t in published writing. Be sure to look for the possibility of ambiguity as well.


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