Controversy has always surrounded the Oxford comma. The term refers to the optional comma you can insert just before the last item in a list: candy, cookies, and ice cream.
Notice I said optional. There are misinformed people who will try to convince you that the Oxford comma is evil – and others who insist it’s the only correct way to punctuate a list. Both groups are wrong.
If you’re writing for yourself, you can use the Oxford comma or omit it. Your choice. If you’re writing professionally, you may be required to use it – or to omit it. (Professional writers check a style manual before they submit something they’ve written.)
My husband writes two newspaper columns every week. Because his newspaper prefers AP style, he never uses the Oxford comma. I write books for publication, so I have to use the Oxford comma.
Many companies and organizations have a policy about the Oxford comma. For example, The New Yorker always uses it.
And now things get interesting. I receive a newsy email from The New Yorker every day. Last week I found this link in one of those daily emails:
I’m sure you were as startled as I was when I read it. Lucy Dacus sounds like a woman’s name – but the link suggests that she’s a man.
What it’s trying to tell you, of course, is that the link takes you to information about three people: Lucy Dacus, Link Wray (the man who invented the power chord), and Fred Hersch. But the Oxford comma makes “the man who invented the power chord” sound like an appositive describing Lucy Dacus.
People who hate the Oxford comma (and there are many of them!) love to use examples like this link to show how stupid and bad and awful the Oxford comma is.
I like the Oxford comma, and I almost always use it. So…why would someone who’s proud of her writing (like me) use a punctuation mark that can cause such confusion and awkwardness?
The answer is that I employ some common sense when I’m writing. If the Oxford comma makes a sentence confusing, I take it out – or I find another way to write the sentence.
If I’d been writing that email link for The New Yorker, for example, I would have just listed the three names:
Lucy Dacus, Link Wray, and Fred Hersch BETTER
I could also have revised the list to include information about each person. This version is too jumbled for my taste (I like parallelism). But it’s better than the is-Lucy-a-woman-or-a-man version you saw earlier:
Singer-Songwriter Lucy Dacus, Link Wray (Inventor of the Power Chord), and Wise Jazz Musician Fred Hersch
Clarity and readability should always be your first goal. Many times – while typing for my husband – I’ve wished that the AP would forget about its stubborn rules once in a while to allow an extra comma for clarity.
In the same way, I sometimes delete an Oxford comma if I think it’s creating a problem. Good writing should always matter more than adherence to a rule.