It's Time to Let Go of the Oxford Comma


Moving on can be hard. Whether it’s something as arbitrary as the end of a great book or as significant as graduating from college, there’s something frightening about being thrust out into a world of possibilities and uncertainty. But there’s also something freeing and exciting about it. When we come to the end of a long chapter of our lives, we have the unique opportunity to write new rules and redefine ourselves as people closer to who we really want to be.

Shouldn’t our sentences have the same freedom?

At The King’s College, we pride ourselves on striving for excellence in nearly everything we do. Yet, we continue to allow our sentences to be shackled by an old and arbitrary piece of punctuation: the Oxford Comma.

The main problem with the Oxford Comma is that it’s redundant. The “and” or “or” at the end of a list already indicates that the reader is coming to the last object in a list. In the majority of cases, the Oxford Comma does nothing that these words don’t already do. In the rest of our writing, we tend to consider redundancy bad. Why is the Oxford Comma any different?

The Oxford Comma also slows down the sentence. Some people may argue that this is a good thing, because it helps the reader to slow down and engage with what is being said. However, the Oxford Comma slows down the sentence, without creating any emphasis. If you want to draw your reader’s attention to a specific idea, there are much better ways of doing so.

“But the Oxford Comma is so elegant,” you might say. Perhaps there are some cases where this is true, but let’s be honest: how many of your favorite books, stories or poems do you like because the author was great at using Oxford Commas? You might even be surprised to find that writers whose work you love didn’t even use Oxford Commas; you just didn’t notice it before. Some of the most acclaimed figures in American literature shun the Oxford Comma, such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Cormac McCarthy.

Granted, I can think of two exceptions when the Oxford Comma is useful. The first is when the individual objects in a list contain the word “and” or “or.” For example: “brother and sister Houses at King’s are Thatcher and Lewis, Barton and Churchill, Truth and Bonhoeffer, and QE1 and Reagan.” In these rather limited situations, the Oxford Comma is useful. Because the word “and” is being used in multiple ways, it doesn’t clearly indicate the end of the list. The other situation where the Oxford Comma could be useful is when the objects in the list take so many words to name that the reader could get lost in the sentence and need the Oxford Comma to help him figure out where he is. But if that’s the case, you’re probably just writing a bad sentence to begin with.

I’m not saying that you necessarily need to stop using the Oxford Comma in your own writing. An Oxford Comma isn’t going to ruin your piece. But it’s time for us to recognize that our obsession with the Oxford Comma is more of a fetish than a reasonable defense of an important part of English grammar. It’s time to stop expecting others to use such an unnecessary piece of punctuation.