While there are debates when and where the Oxford comma is appropriate, what are the parameters for making that decision?

By Gracie Helfrich, ’23.

Do you have a person, place or thing you would die for? For certain writers, that thing is the Oxford comma.

With the exception of Arlingtonian’s own staffer Meghan Beery, “I don’t think it’s something I would … die for, but it is like an opinion that I have”.

“On a scale of one to ten, with one being I don’t care and ten being I think people should be tortured or imprisoned for not using it, I’d say I’m at a six,” Jones Middle School language arts teacher Deborah Tarr said about the controversial comma. 

Sophomore Gina DeLeone also has strong feelings about it.

“I think it’s necessary and I feel strongly about it,” DeLeone said. 

But what is the Oxford comma and why is it do highly debated? It is the final comma in a list of things—for example, in the statement “The pigs, goats, and chickens walked across the street,” the Oxford comma appears after goats.

Now the debate over it comes into play when we ask if it’s really needed. That same statement would also be grammatically correct without the Oxford comma: “The pigs, goats and chickens walked across the street.”

The thing is there is room for the reader to interpret the sentence differently than the author intended. The author’s intention was to say that the three animals walked across the street but now without the comma, the reader may think that the pigs walked across the street that’s different than the goats and chickens walked across the street. 

Tarr understands the importance of the comma when talking about how the author’s intention will be portrayed based on the comma’s involvement.

“Any writer’s goal should be clarity and when punctuation is used correctly or incorrectly, this can have a significant impact on one’s writing,” Tarr said.

The argument that the Oxford comma is needed for clarity reasons can be refuted by saying that in a debate on whether or not to use the Oxford comma, maybe the sentence in question was confusing to begin with and it needs to made more clear. In this case the sentence could look something like this: “A group of chickens accompanied by a number of goats crossed the street; there were also pigs making the cross.”

This idea is mentioned in the AP Stylebook. 

The 2020 AP stylebook says, “include a final comma in a simple series if omitting it could make the meaning unclear”.

This means that in journalistic writing it is better to reword your sentence to make it more clear instead of using the Oxford comma. 

Beery has her own opinion on this note of the stylebook.

“There are a lot of rules in the AP Stylebook that already don’t make sense, and I think that adding the Oxford comma into something especially when it is used in a lot of academic journals to clarify sentences and things in sentences that it would make more sense then some of the rules that are already in the book,” Beery said.