The Oxford Comma: It is what it is.

This is a debate that is never going to end. But let’s face it. The Oxford comma is important. Think about it. Why do we use grammar? To create meaning. What is an Oxford comma? It’s grammar. Why should we use it? Because it creates meaning. Of course, there is a divide on that very fact, too. This Ted-Ed lesson below explains that divide, and why both sides claim what they claim when it comes to the Oxford comma, or in other words, the serial comma. (Imagine this sentence without commas!)

Of course, little things can make a big difference, and this ->  ,  <- little thing can really make a big difference.

If the Oxford comma is optional and can be dismissed, then so can every other grammar rule that ever existed. Seriously! The argument that the presence of the comma should just be understood is really not a valid argument. If the dissociation of the last two words in a series is so obvious, then why was the Oxford comma even invented? Well, here’s a thought – because maybe someone misunderstood that dissociation. I agree that a different word order can be used to convey the same meaning that is created using the Oxford comma. But no one is saying not to use a different word order. The function of the Oxford comma is not to eliminate other grammatical forms to convey the same meaning. The function of the Oxford comma is to create meaning in that specific word order. And for that word order, it is absolutely necessary to communicate the dissociation of the last two words in a series. The fact that it is optional and may or may not be used is what creates more confusion.

In this era of textual shift, where punctuation is highly disregarded, we cannot dismiss the function of it altogether. The fact is that punctuation is a part of our semantics. It is as much a part of what we say and mean as the words that we are using. Punctuation will continue to exist. It may evolve in form as our ability to write on different platforms evolves, but it will still be present. So to dismiss the idea of them or to say that they are not necessary to convey meaning anymore is inaccurate. Just because their function in different discourses has changed or evolved does not mean that it has become non-existent. As Jeff Scheible describes in his book, Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation, and as seen in the many examples in the video above, we need to care about what “drastic semantic differences slightly varied uses of punctuation can make.”


Graphic courtesy of << >>

I do not prescribe to hard and fast grammar rules, and I also do not underestimate or dismiss the importance of using grammar in rhetorical context. In fact, that is the very thing I deem important. It is, therefore, that I emphasize the importance of the oxford comma – because it has a rhetorical function in the context in which it is used. So to those who say that it is optional are completely ignoring the rhetorical value of the Oxford comma. It is not ‘optional’ to use an Oxford comma where it is needed, if it is hindering the clarity of meaning that the writer wants to get across. It is not ‘optional’ to use an Oxford comma in the same way it is not ‘optional’ to stop at a stop sign. If we just assume that there isn’t a car coming from the other direction simply because it’s too late at night, it will cause an accident. Similarly, if we just assume that people will be able to dissociate a list of ideas simply because there is a conjunction, it will cause a misinterpretation of meaning – which can be just as harmful.

As I acknowledged at the very beginning, I know this an ongoing debate and everyone who writes probably has some opinion on it. So, I invite you to join this debate and let me know what you think about it. Is the Oxford comma important? Is punctuation important? Can these things be dismissed as a part of the function of language? Should they be? Leave your comments below and let’s converse.

Image from Oxford Comma on Pinterest << >>


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