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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Oxford (or Serial) Comma: Decried, Defended, and Debated

I commented recently about the continuing debate on use of the serial (or Oxford) comma. Well, I think it's worth reviewing the infographic below by OnlineSchools.com because it covers the topic in a clear, concise way.

As I've noted before, I've been in the Associated Press camp for decades (as a former journalist) and think it's OK to drop the comma in a simple series: She wore tan shoes, pink shoelaces and a polka-dot shirt. But as another example from the infographic shows, a simple series might not be so simple: "I'd like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey." Using familiar names makes that a silly example, so consider this: "I'd like to thank my parents, Bill Winfrey and Helen Clinton."


Some would say a comma after Bill Winfrey's name (or Bill Clinton's name) would tell readers that neither Bill nor Helen is a parent of the speaker. 

The graphic, unfortunately, sets up a faulty choice based on its analysis of various style guides. It advises people to be consistent, either never use the serial comma or use it all the time. That choice is faulty because (as far as I know) none of the style guides that consider the comma optional advise writers and editors to never use it. 

Still, I do appreciate the graphic's advice about being consistent. And the only consistent acceptable use is to always use the comma. Doing that is never grammatically wrong. But ...

The infographic offers some information and advice that I haven't seen before: 
  • Most U.S. style guides prefer the comma, so use it if you're writing for U.S. organizations and publications--unless you're writing for a news outlet that favors AP style. 
  • If you're writing for organizations and publications in the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia, it's probably OK to drop the comma (apparently because The Economist and the Oxford University PR department omit it). 

The Oxford Comma
Courtesy of: Online Schools

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An article featuring the infogram about the Oxford comma is featured today, March 19, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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