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Who Cares about the Oxford Comma?

Okay, I admit it. I'm not totally and completely in love with the Oxford comma.

Instead, as an editor, I love what the Oxford comma does: It cuts down on ambiguity in a series of items (which is why it's also called the "series" or "serial" comma).

You see, if you and I were speaking, I could probably tell what you meant when you said to me:

"This weekend, I'm going home to see my family, my husband and my cat."

In part, that would be because of context. After all, if I know you well enough to talk to you about your weekend plans, it would probably be obvious to me whether your family consisted of three entities, or whether you and your housemates were entertaining the extended family for the weekend. (In the former situation, I'd probably wish you a good time, while in the latter I might offer my condolences…)

However, if I were reading a manuscript and a character we've just met said that she planned to go home to "her family, her husband and her cat" I wouldn’t know whether the character meant just two housemates or a whole bunch of semi-related individuals.

Adding that Harvard comma (it's amazing how many names one little piece of punctuation can go by), we get:

"This weekend, I’m going home to see my family, my husband, and my cat."

Suddenly, with or without previous context, it becomes obvious there are three separate items in the list:

1. family

2. husband

3. cat

Context, of course, is where all the fun begins.

As a fiction author, it's incredibly easy to get wrapped up in the world you've created. If you're doing things right, you probably know more about your characters than you do about the people you eat lunch with every day. You, at your keyboard, know precisely who will be spending time with whom on the weekend. You don't need context. Your readers, however, do. And—if you hope to keep your readers interested beyond the first few pages—you need to clue them in on what is going on in the world inside your head. (Otherwise, you become your slightly addled grandfather trying to tell stories about relatives who died thirty years before you were born. In either case, only the closest relatives will hang on until the end.)

As a nonfiction author, the serial comma can be even more important. After all, if you're explaining that there are a set of factors which impact the violence of a volcanic eruption, and you list "the magma's viscosity, gas content and composition" it might seem that you're worried about the composition of the gas in the magma, instead of the composition of the magma, itself. (This changes, as you can see, if you add the second comma: "the magma's viscosity, gas content, and composition.") Speaking of nonfiction, it's interesting—at least to me—that the Associated Press's stylebook does not use the serial comma. Wouldn't you think a news organization would want to avoid confusion?

Here's the catch, though: It’s all about understandability. (Yes, that's a real word.) If you can truly make yourself understood without using the terminal comma before your conjunction (the "and" or "or" before the last listed item), then you may not need that comma.

Yep. I've just admitted it. There is, technically, no right or wrong answer in this never-ending grammatical debate. Much of the "to use or not to use" discussion falls to the style guide you're working off of, your consistent use of one form or the other, and your ability to make your point clear and your meaning precise. As an editor, I might prefer the Oxford comma (and I do—I really do), but if you desperately wish to leave it out, I'm not going to sneak back into your manuscript late at night and add it in.

My final question for you to consider as you move forward is: Are you sure your meaning will come through without it? If you're not sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, save yourself, your readers, and (yes, I'm biased) your editors some time and clear up that ambiguity with a few extra pixels.

Your family, husband, and cat will thank you.

Originally published on - 5/6/2016

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