The Oxford Comma

About 15 years ago or so, I taught a group of corporate auditors a segment on the proper use of commas in their writing. Auditors write A LOT! It’s a core competency in most audit organizations that their people possess the ability to write clearly, concisely, and correctly. The one piece of punctuation they struggled with the most, was how to properly and correctly use commas.

At one point in the course, someone challenged me on the use of what is known as the Oxford Comma—that pesky comma that people place just before the ‘and’ in a list. Here’s an example:

  • Sally ate meat, potatoes, and gravy for dinner.
  • Tommy decided to have fruit, vegetables, and eggs.

The person argued the comma before the ‘and’ was not needed; that it just cluttered things with unnecessary punctuation. In the writing world, few things are more hotly debated among skilled and knowledgeable writers as whether or not that comma must be included or not. The truth is that the person who objected during my class was right…and not necessarily right, all at the same time.

It has become acceptable in today’s writing world to omit the comma if it does not improve or add to the clarity of the sentence; and it should be used only when omitting it creates ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence.

In her book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, Lynn Truss tells this joke about a panda in a cafe. It demonstrates the pointed need for ensuring commas are used properly.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit.

The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation:

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

The variations on this simple sentence show how missing and misplaced commas can change the meaning of a sentence in some rather dramatic ways.

Eats shoots and leaves. – The panda eats two things: shoots and leaves.

Eats shoots, and leaves. – The panda eats one thing (shoots) and then leaves.

Eats, shoots, and leaves. – The panda does three distinct things: it eats, it shoots, and it leaves.

There’s an extremely well-done infographic over at OnlineSchools.com that explains the history of the Oxford Comma and its uses (see below).

As it explains, using the Oxford Comma is a matter of style preferences. Predominantly in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, the comma is most often included, while in the United States, it is omitted unless doing so would create confusion in the sentence’s meaning.

That said, at the end of the day, a writer should make a conscious choice about whether the comma is used or not used, and then stick with that as a matter of their personal writing style. They must also beware, however, that certain industry style manuals will provide specific guidance about whether to include it or not.

Myself, I choose to include the comma as a matter of consistency in my writing.

Enjoy the infographic!
The Oxford Comma
Courtesy of: http://www.onlineschools.com