A newspaper had this to say about a documentary about Merle Haggard: “The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
This seemingly harmless sentence caused a debate to spark between two factions in the world of English grammar: the pro-Oxfords and the anti-Oxfords. The argument? Whether or not there should be a comma separating the names of the two latter names.
For those who are not in the know, the Oxford comma is the punctuation mark that comes before the word “and.” To illustrate, users of the Oxford comma would say, “I had eggs, toast, and coffee for breakfast,” while those against it would simply say, “I had eggs, toast and coffee for breakfast.” The difference is that the Oxford provides more clarity; otherwise, some may misunderstand the second sentence to mean that you had eggs and toast mixed with coffee.
The abovementioned example from a newspaper further makes the case for those in favor of the Oxford comma. The lack of the Oxford comma may cause confusion to some readers and make them think that Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives were Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
Those who are against the Oxford comma see it as a form of elitism. It isn’t how it’s popularly done, so why adapt it all of a sudden? There are also those who are indifferent to it. They see the argument over Oxford comma pointless and an obsession for those who are “overly educated.”
However, supporters of the Oxford comma do have a point. The Oxford comma lessens ambiguity and makes context clearer for readers. In the end, better understanding is what we should strive for.
Some newspapers omit the usage of the Oxford comma, such as the Canadian Press, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Post. Mainly, this is for economic reasons, as a comma (or several) can take up the space that might be needed for a whole other word. However, many academic style guides encourage its usage, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the US Government Printing Office Style, the Harvard University Style Guide, and of course, its inventor, the Oxford University Style Guide.
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