Editing: The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Now that I’ve opened up some editing services, about which I am really quite excited, I thought I would also do more editing and writing discussions on the blog. So continue expecting book review from me, but on the weeks when I don’t have any book reviews scheduled, I will be doing more wordsmith related topics.

Which brings me to what is perhaps the most controversial topic in the world of writing, no matter what genre you are in: the Oxford comma. I figured I might as well start off with something famaliar, dramatic and controversial.

(See what I did there?)

Okay, first things first, I’m going to tell you where I stand on the whole Oxford comma issue and then I’ll start explaining the mechanics. I am thoroughly neutral. I see both sides of the argument. When the situation calls for it, I use the comma. When I don’t see a great need for it, I don’t. And in my editing, I thoroughly respect the preference of the author and only advise a change if something is really, really wonky.

Right! On to the mechanics.

Generally speaking, the Oxford comma is the comma in a list of items/actions that precedes an “and” or an “or” conjunction. For example: I bought cookies, tea, and socks. (The debate is often seen in lists of three, but can occur in larger lists or smaller lists as well.)

The controversy comes from the question of whether that final comma is necessary. Those that argue FOR the comma believe that it is necessary because you could have situations where the “and” links the items in the list rather than indicating they are separate, which would generation confusion. For example: I bought some chocolate, cashews and almonds. This could potentially be confusing since the cashews and almonds could be a single item of mixed nuts, or they could be separate. This is a very basic example, but confusion can arise under many different circumstances and with many different items. Often, I see the greatest issue with items that contain a full clause (such as “fishing with the family”).

Those that argue AGAINST the comma believe that it is not necessary because the conjunction provides the necessary grammatical break, making the comma redundant. Using the same example as above, buying cashews and almonds would be considered not confusing for the very reason that if you were buying them as one single item, it would be most likely to be mentioned as some sort of mixed nut collection. The mind logically breaks down the list to understand that the items are separate because of the use of “and” as a linking conjunction. The comma often takes the grammatical meaning of “and” when it is not used in the sense of a natural pause. Therefore, the comma use in the list would be considered redundant; you would not say “I bought chocolate, cashews and and almonds.”

This is a gross simplification of the issue. There are many instances where a different grammatical structure can be used (semi-colons are one such instance that do not get used frequently in modern linguistic patterns), and there is often a great deal of ambiguity even in simple phrases. My advice would be to use what makes the most natural sense in your mind. If there is a problem, then you can ask your editor or writer friends on social media and see what they think. Just don’t be surprised if there’s a debate!