Nov 22, 2008

The Oxford Comma

By Christine Thackeray

Okay, I totally know I'm obsessed with writing right now. Let's accept it and move on. Next week I've got ten people coming to my house for Thanksgiving, and I haven't scrubbed a toilet in weeks. I could tell it was really bad yesterday, when I went to the temple and everytime I closed my eyes, I saw words. I was literally reading my dreams.

The reason for this obsession is that a wonderful friend of mine, Wendy Jones, did an incredible line edit job on my last manuscript. As a result, I went back through the entire thing, deleting two whole chapters and reviewing every comma.

There were some grammatical errors that simply are against my nature. I don't want to put a period after action, when it leads to dialogue, because they seem connected in my mind. As a result, although I know the rule- I don't often follow it and have to edit out my stubbornness.

But there was one error that I did not agree with. It is the dreaded Oxford Comma. I was educated on the east coast, and I remember clearly my grammar teacher in eighth grade. He was a stickler and publicly freaked out everytime he saw the smallest error in our writing. One thing he was adamant about was NOT putting a comma before the conjunction at the end of a series. He said something to the effect, "the state of the comma/conjunction is reserved to separate full sentences. If they are only phrases, they don't deserve a comma!"

Well, when Wendy editted my manuscript, she stuck comma's in all my series. Example: A collection of brushes, applicators (,) and small containers glistened in the bathroom.

At first I thought she was wrong, because of my grammar teacher, but then right before I wrote this blog, I did some research. Apparently, this pesky comma has its own name- THE OXFORD COMMA, and I'm not the only one that has disagreed about it. The Chicago Manual agreed with Wendy- sort of. It strongly recommends using the Oxford Comma. Still, the style guides for The NY Times and Associated Press absolutely disagree that it is necessarly, and in the Cambridge University Press it is positively discouraged. Also, most writing from the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa and Australia don't touch this pesky punctuation point. Isn't it interesting that the Oxford comma is never used in Oxford?

Still, the question remains, do I use it? The answers hit me the other night when my sixteen year old daughter was talking about accents. She believed that the English had an accent and we didn't. I said that we both had accents- there's is English and ours is American. You see, I'm not really writing in English at all but in American- and so, Wendy, you win.


  1. Personally, Christine, I use commas here only if it makes better sense. I can't think of a great example right now, so I'll make up a dumb one.

    "Thanksgiving had almost srrived, so I planned a menu, wrote my list, hurried to the store and cooked a wonderful meal." Without a comma before the last 'and' one could wonder just where I did the cooking.

    Okay, so it's not classic, but you smart readers get the idea.

  2. Christine, I loved the argument. Comma or no, it was fun. Thanks.

  3. That whole obsessed with writing and non-scrubbed toilets really spoke to me. I love you--with or without your commas!

  4. Great post, Christine!! Interestingly enough, I was educated on the West Coast and I learned exactly what you did ~ no commas before conjunctions in a list, etc.

    So... who knows? But I thought your post was fun. I especially enjoyed the remark, "to edit out my stubbornness." (I think the Lord has done plenty of "editing" in my life and TRIED to edit out my stubbornness). Take care.

  5. This is such a funny one for me, because here at my magazine we don't use the comma and our "English" majors both disagreed with the rule, so the "liberal arts" major made the call.

  6. Perhaps the education on commas is also age related. I grew up in the west and learned the rule the same as Stephanie and Christine...but my children learned it differently. is also a lot more liberal. Is there a connection??

  7. I work in the writing center of the ASU polytechnic campus and I was fascinated to learn that there was actually a name for this pattern of comma usage. I actually was brought up to use the Oxford comma, and when I ran into the other way, I was quite shocked. I usually tell people who come in for help on their writing that it is important to be consistent in comma usage.
    But I also the previous point made that an omitted comma can change the meaning.

    Great topic for a post!


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