Necessary commas?

It’s not often that punctuation makes the headlines. But the uproar over the apparent threat to the Oxford comma has proved that passion for punctuation can bubble just below the surface. (It also answers indie band Vampire Weekend’s question: who gives a **** about an Oxford comma? Lots of people, it seems.)

For those who missed it, Twitter recently erupted amid fears that Oxford University Press was dropping the so-called Oxford (or serial) comma. ‘Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals’, read one outraged tweet.

In fact, what the Oxford comma separates is the second-to-last item in a list of three or more, and a coordinating conjunction (generally and or or). For example: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Views on it have long been divided, with American English typically opting for it (it is also known as the Harvard comma in the US), and British English opting against. Meanwhile, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic usually save column space by leaving it out.

The most sensible approach is to avoid a blanket rule either way and employ that final comma only when it will help to avoid ambiguity.

The serial comma would add nothing in the sentence:

At the breakfast briefing, they served eggs, toast and coffee

but might be useful to separate the items clearly in this one:

At the breakfast briefing, they served coffee, eggs and bacon, and toast and jam.

But now consider the difference between

The speaker said he had been inspired by his colleagues, Jeffrey Archer and Lady Gaga [suggests – startlingly – that Jeffrey Archer and Lady Gaga are the speaker’s colleagues]


The speaker said he had been inspired by his colleagues, Jeffrey Archer, and Lady Gaga [the speaker has been moved by three entities: his colleagues, Jeffrey Archer (mysteriously), and Lady Gaga].

Not so redundant after all, eh?

It has now emerged that the advice to drop the punctuation mark was only for Oxford University staff writing press releases and internal communications. You might be tempted to believe – amid all the vows of reinvigorated love and eternal loyalty – that behind the now infamous Oxford comma lurks an ingenious PR agent, rubbing his hands with glee. (We couldn’t possibly comment.)

Do you have strong feelings one way or the other? Or do you perhaps feel there is another element of punctuation or grammar that could do with some good press or the threat of abolition?

Drop us a line and let us know.

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