Few grammatical debates have created more controversy than the Oxford Comma. Below, ASUNM Attorney General Emily Hartshorn and Daily Lobo Editor-in-Chief Kyle Land attempt to argue for and against the usage of the hotly debated punctuation mark. No matter which side you fall on, hopefully this gives you an insight as to why others use or do not use the serial comma.
As Attorney General of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, my job is to give advice on the interpretation of the ASUNM Law Book and Constitution. My duties require me to be specific, concise, and accurate. That’s why I’m an avid supporter of the Oxford comma. I’m presenting my case to you, dear Editor, for the oft overlooked comma whose purpose is so critical.
First, some history. The serial comma — the comma placed preceding the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more terms — was popularized as the Oxford comma because its usage was part of house style for the Oxford University Press. The comma is common in most of American style guides. It’s even been made mandatory by some. From APA and MLA, to Chicago and the classic Elements of Style, the serial comma is recognized as an arbiter of clarity.
My favorite comical mishap that popularized the importance of the serial comma was when an author’s exclusion created an intriguing set of parents. The excerpt reads: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
I recognize the reasons your respectable campus newspaper generally avoids its usage. Your style guide advises against the comma if its use doesn’t help clarify what’s being said. Only if an integral element of a series requires a conjunction do journalists use the Oxford comma.
Call me new-fangled, but I like my punctuation the way I like my professors’ grading expectations: consistent. That’s why I always use the Oxford comma. When formally discharging the duties of my office, the comma is there. In texts and emails, tweets and snaps, memos, essays, and applications, it persists. Like all good unsung heroes, the Oxford comma stands strong, protecting unbeknownst readers from confusion and ensuring Ayn Rand and God don’t have a child anytime soon.
Here’s my plea to readers: use the Oxford comma. We’ll all be better for it.
ASUNM, Attorney General
ASUNM Attorney General Hartshorn,
To me, the Oxford comma is a lot like cinnamon — a little bit is alright, but too much can easily ruin the entire batch, in this case an entire piece of writing.
It is true that the Associated Press Stylebook allows Oxford commas to avoid confusion in some instances. For example: “For lunch he had apples, chips, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” The comma here makes it clear that the peanut butter and jelly are not two distinct items. In this case, an Oxford comma helps make a sentence less ambiguous.
However, the same does not hold true for every scenario. Take this example: “This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.” Here, the serial comma makes it sound like Ayn Rand and my mother are the same person. In this case, the sentence isn’t specific, concise nor accurate, all three of which are essential tenets of journalism, as well as student government.
The grammar may be consistent, but it is also significantly more confusing as a result.
This overrated punctuation mark only clears up ambiguity in very specific situations. Otherwise, it is merely there for the sake of being there, which is as far from concise as writing can be. Some may say it’s there to signify a pause, but the “and” in the sentence already accomplishes this. Having an extra comma is like having two periods or two sets of parentheses right next to each other — there’s no added effect to the readability of a sentence.
In place of the Oxford comma, may I recommend other, oft overlooked forms of punctuation, such as the em dash or semicolon. The former is especially versatile and is far less ambiguous than an extra comma that most people only use because their elementary school teachers told them so.
Editor-in-Chief, Daily Lobo