A New Comm(a)itment: Why We’re Choosing to Use the Oxford Comma
This is an announcement.
The internet doesn’t need another argumentative treatise on the virtues of the Oxford comma. I should know; I read about a dozen of them to prepare for a very silly, very important debate this past summer—a debate that will have a lasting effect on our agency. That’s right, people: the Oxford comma is now word-of-Superhuman law, inscribed in the official agency style guidelines! Please clap.
It was a long time coming, but let me set the scene as I remember it. ‘Twas my first week as an intern back in May 2022, and I was rooting around in the resource section on Notion when I saw it: “We use AP style and thus we don’t use the Oxford comma.” Naturally, my first instinct was to sever my internship contract on the spot. Then I remembered that I need money to live (and that I really like working here), so what I actually did was message a coworker to gripe. It went something like this:
Me: “We don’t use the Oxford comma here??”
Her: “I KNOW. that took me a minute to get used to. Please feel encouraged to start a friendly debate in the copywriting channel.”
So I did! It first came up in a chat with Molly Waller, our head of creative, and she was quick to tell me that she had no qualms about using the extra comma. She liked it, even! The problem, she explained, is that agencies almost universally use AP style guidelines. Many people in the industry come from a journalism background, where AP style is absolute law, and rejection of the Oxford comma is a matter of convention. (She also introduced me to a fascinating factoid about the origins of this style rule: apparently, back in ye olden days of the printing press, newspapers omitted the extra comma to save letter-block space. Friends, it’s not 1690 anymore. We have cars, smallpox vaccines, and the internet—you can hit that comma key as many times as you want.)
The more I talked to my fellow Superhumans, the clearer it became that people did like the Oxford comma. Many used it in their personal lives—some even leapt at the opportunity to champion its cause. And on August 8, 2022, a day for the history books, they made their opinions known in a poll that determined whether or not we as an agency would adopt the comma. I’m proud to report that “Oxford me, baby!” won in a landslide (81%), and with good reason.
But again, this is not an argumentative essay—it’s a victory lap. This is 2,000 words of
Wait, wait! What’s an Oxford comma?
Before I get ahead of myself, I should probably explain that the Oxford comma is the last comma in a series of three or more items. Take the sentence “I love books, movies, and dogs.” The Oxford comma comes right before “and dogs.” We’ve all seen it in action, but you might not know the name. Now you do! And now we can get deep into it.
Why do we even use commas?
A comma’s most basic function is to separate parts of a sentence and items in a list. In speech, we pause to aid comprehension. In writing, punctuation marks signify those pauses, dictating the cadence of everything we read.
Consider this sentence:
“I love bowling, skiing and going fishing.”
Did you read that in your head as “I love bowling, skiingandgoingfishing?” Did the last half of that sentence rush on without pause like an uninterrupted stream of vomit? Or maybe there was a split-second moment of confusion. For one wild moment, did you think that the speaker likes to fish while skiing? If so, you’re not alone! Our brains are wired to read it that way.
Lets try that again:
“I love bowling, skiing, and going fishing.”
Better, right? There’s clear delineation. In speech, we’d pause before “going fishing.” Why shouldn’t we do the same in writing? The Oxford comma mirrors the natural cadence of our speech, and at the end of the day, that improves reader understanding. Without that extra pause, the rhythm of the sentence feels off. I’d defend Oxford for that reason alone, but that’s just the start.
Think of the implications …
People tend to infer relationships between items that are grouped together by punctuation. Without a pause—a comma—between the last two items in a series, people are likely to assume a connection that might not exist.
Say you’re trying to order lunch:
“We have hot dogs, tacos, burgers and fries.”
Reading this, you might (reasonably) assume that the burgers and fries are a package deal. They’re grouped together, and it’d make perfect sense to serve fries alongside a burger, but it’s hard to know for sure.
Here’s that same sentence with the Oxford comma:
“We have hot dogs, tacos, burgers, and fries.”
Now it’s clear that the burgers and fries are separate menu items—if you want both, you’ll have to order both separately. And sure, there are other ways to arrange that sentence, and sure, there are hints that the items are separate (like the missing “and”), but when you’re hangry, grammar rules are the last thing on your mind.
People use the Oxford comma to prevent confusion and eliminate ambiguity—that might be the most compelling point in favor of its usage. You’ve likely seen more dramatic and comical examples where the Oxford comma was woefully needed (e.g., “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”), but ultimately, it exists to prevent irritating and inconvenient everyday confusions.
But the AP style guidelines address that!
That’s true! AP style guidelines don’t actually ban the Oxford comma—they just limit its usage. There are countless exceptions:
- Complex sentences: (“Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases.”)
- “You can render the logo in black and green, black and white, and green and white.”
- Potentially confusing sentences: (“Include a final comma in a simple series if omitting it could make the meaning unclear.”)
- “I had dinner with my wife Rachel, my sister, and my dog.”
- Sentences so conjunction-laden they make you want to tear your hair out: (“Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction.”)
- “The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.”
Those exceptions cover a lot, but they make things more complicated for the writer. It’s hard to consistently stick to guidelines when they’re so fuzzy. In theory, the AP allows the Oxford comma only in situations where it provides necessary clarity, but here’s the thing: clarity is entirely subjective. What’s clear to the writer might not be clear to the reader. We can all spend way too much time dithering over whether further punctuation is necessary, or we can easily save ourselves the trouble by using the noble Oxford comma.
It’s the peoples’ comma!
People get heated about this topic. Most of those people are nerds, but still: it inspires passion. And across the board—in FiveThirtyEight surveys, Tinder bios, Reddit forums, informal Twitter polls, and our very own agency—the Oxford comma tends to come out on top. No one’s ever done a widespread study (that I could find—and believe me, I hunted), but it certainly appears that the majority of Americans prefer and regularly use the Oxford comma. Language is arbitrary—it’s people that generate meaning. Who are we to stand against the will of the people?
The Oxford comma is standard in American academia and publishing. That means it’s in our schools, on our tests, and in our books—kids learn to read with the Oxford comma, and that impact is huge. People tend to cling to the rules they’re taught when they’re young, so belief in the Oxford comma’s correctness is engrained at an early age. When the majority of the population reads our content, they’ll likely register that missing comma on some level—consciously or unconsciously—and its absence will look unnatural and incorrect.
Not only that, people who care strongly about grammar rules prefer the Oxford comma (FIVETHIRTYEIGHT, PROOFREAD NOW), and they’ll definitely notice (and complain) if you don’t use it.
What more do I have to say?
Are there any other qualms? Do you scorn the British as an intellectual authority? If so, I’ve got great news: the Oxford comma isn’t actually their doing—historians trace its use back to a 15-century Italian printer. In fact, most British organizations reject the use of the Oxford comma, so you can use it and breathe easy knowing you’re not giving our ancient enemy any wins. If the name still rankles, you can always call it the serial, series, or Harvard comma instead.
Concerned about the economy of time and space? Yeah, ok, I’ll admit it: the extra comma “adds clutter” that “slows the reader down.” That said, if I have to go back and reread a sentence because a missing comma gave me the wrong idea, I’m not saving time. Ambiguity creates confusion that interrupts your flow. At the end of the day, I’ll take a miniscule mental hiccup over the roadblock of uncertainty. Same goes for the writer. If I have to take a pause while writing to rearrange a sentence or Google “exception cases,” I am absolutely not saving time or effort—I’m making more work for myself.
Worried about deviating from the AP Stylebook?
Don’t. We (as an agency) have already made plenty of exceptions for far more arbitrary reasons. After a certain point, you might as well shrug, grin, and add another broken rule to the list. Our chosen style guidelines only apply to us. If we’re writing for a client that doesn’t use the Oxford comma, we won’t either. It’s as simple as that!
At the end of the day, this isn’t all that serious. Or rather, it’s as serious as we choose to make it. As John McIntyre (editor at The Baltimore Sun) put it: “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.” And yeah, he said it! The English language is in many ways a joke. Punctuation is important, but it’s also bullshit. Imposing language rules without any flexibility is a fruitless endeavor. All words are made up. Grammar, punctuation, and linguistic patterns vary widely by language and culture. Ultimately, there are no “correct” ways to write—only generally-accepted and understood ways. (Our very own Angely wrote a piece on that exact topic last fall.)
You can rally for or against the comma all you like—I certainly do—but at the end of the day, please remember: it’s just a comma.