The Oxford Comma: Is it Relevant?

Reopening the Case of a Very Controversial Piece of Punctuation


Tyler Burkett, Writer

You’ve most likely seen it or at least heard of it without even realizing it: the Oxford comma. An English teacher’s preferred piece of punctuation pertaining to the pellucid order of items and people. 

“[The Oxford comma] is used in the series of commas when you are separating different items so as not to confuse them,” English teacher Aaron Schwartz said. “Usually, it’s right before the ‘and’ that would connect the last item to the first two.”

A common debate in the world of Egnlish and grammar is if the comma is needed or not. When asked to talk about this ‘controversial’ piece of punctuation, English teacher Aaron Schwartz shared his opinion on its use and importance in writing as a whole.

The Oxford comma is not commonly found in journalistic writing because of the spacing issues it causes, especially in a print newspaper. Every letter, piece of punctuation and graphic costs money. (Notice how I didn’t use the Oxford comma after the ‘and’ in the previous sentence.) 

The AP Style guide states that “If punctuation does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there.” And specifically, under commas, the book says “If a comma does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there.” According to the AP Style guide, it seems punctuation and commas are interchangeable here.

Back in 2014, three truck drivers sued a local dairy company in Maine…because of the lack of an Oxford comma.

“I think it’s usually when you get into different fields that also use English that you end up seeing it be cut for space concerns,” Schwartz spoke of journalism with distaste in his voice. “Especially in print media, I get why an extra comma, that you could technically make superfluous, would save you ink and space where space is actually money.”

However Schwartz also mentioned there being “countless examples of where those items get confused in a sentence where you should be using it.” One example being a lawsuit filed against a dairy company due to a state law pertaining to overtime pay.

Back in 2014, three truck drivers sued a local dairy company in Maine over what they thought was four years worth of overtime pay because of the lack of an Oxford comma within the overtime pay law. You know the saying: with great punctuation, comes great ambiguity for overtime laws. 

The lawsuit went through the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and the court ruled in favor of the drivers and changed the law to have a different piece of punctuation, the semicolon. 

While this case changed the punctuation to something entirely different, it brought up an important point to the public eye. What other pieces of punctuation do you know that were deciding factors in a lawsuit that gave three truck drivers five million dollars apiece? 

Jokes aside, a point was raised to asterisk height that without the Oxford comma, we would lose clarity in our sentences.

“It is very useful for communicating clearly,” English teacher Peter Mishler said. “I think that on the other hand, if there is a sentence being written that doesn’t require as much clarity, than it’s not necessary.”

Halfway through our interview, Mishler stated that most students don’t know how to use commas at all. I, an English student, can personally attest to this because while typing this sentence I tried putting a comma between ‘because’ and ‘while’ which, as I’ve come to find out, is not how commas are used.

I believe that this is the problem with my generation–besides climate change and the inevitable robot takeover. Texting and social media have made grammar a thing of the past with abbreviations and informality that has become the societal norm. So normal, that most kids my age don’t know where to put a comma or let alone what an asterisk even is.

Now obviously you read through this article (or scrolled to the end, I know who you are) to find out if the Oxford comma was relevant or not. And if you’re not here for that reason, then you’ve simply read an article about a piece of punctuation. 

But that’s all a comma is, nothing more than a piece of punctuation. And yet it has so much importance on whether or not we understand what is trying to be communicated to us that without it, we can be confused by the meaning of something as simple as a text, or on special occasions, the written law.

I believe that the relevance of the Oxford comma, and punctuation in general, is central to the language that everyone reading this speaks. It is at the very core of how we read and write and the lack of it would be confusing to someone reading any sentence where it is most definitely needed. 

So if you need a refresher on how or when to use a comma, hit up your local English teacher. Because odds are they’ll know how to use it and will be more than happy to talk grammar since it’s more than a hobby for them. It’s a job.