Ramona Marks



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The Oxford Comma and Me

I include the Oxford comma in my style guide, because to me this particular use of the comma adds clarity in most situations. But thanks to a great Mental Floss article, I've seen how the other side thinks and understand that not everyone needs to use the serial comma. There are good, bad, and mediocre writers who use and don't use that comma before the 'and'.

Writing with clarity is the goal. The well-worn example of poor comma use is the bear who 'eats, shoots, and leaves" - did the bear eat, then shoot someone, and then leave the building? Or is it a bear that eats the shoots and leaves of a plant?

Comma use is riddled with dangers. It has the ability to clarify and to muddle. In legal writing, impenetrable to all but the few who understand that it is a work of precision, the serial comma is critical. If a will states that 'the remaining wealth will be divided between his son, his daughter and her husband',  the son gets half and the daughter gets half with her spouse. Add the additional comma and each party gets one third. 

The Oxford comma is encouraged because of problems like these. If you understand how to correctly use the Oxford comma, you'll know when to use it and when to leave it out. If you don't use the Oxford comma, and therefore aren't interested in how it can be used to increase clarity, you're likely to make a muddle. 

But writers who avoid the Oxford comma can also be clear. There are great writers who don't use the Oxford comma and their comma use is without fault. Creating conflict about comma use is a great way to draw attention, but the most important rule applies not to the use of the Oxford comma, but to the use of commas in general: use commas correctly so that the writing itself is clear and the intended meaning is understood.