Well, this is going to be a short blog post.
What? A short blog post about the Oxford comma?
The same Oxford comma that has had grammarians at each other’s throats for decades?
The Oxford comma Horace Hart introduced during his time as printer and controller of Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915?
Yes, that Oxford comma.
The same Oxford comma that was identified and named by Peter Sutcliff in his 1978 book about the Oxford University Press?
The same Oxford comma that Sutcliff attributed to F. Howard Collins, who wrote about it in his seminal work ‘Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists’?
Yep. That one.
A short blog post? About the Oxford comma?
Yes, yes and thrice yes.
Here we go.
As we discussed in our earlier post 'A Proofreader's Guide to Grammar' (you can read it by clicking here), as a proofreader, your job is identify errors and not enter heated debates about ‘good, better, best’ issues of literacy.
The use of an Oxford comma (sometimes called a Harvard comma or serial comma) is largely a matter of opinion and taste. Some people just like the Oxford comma. Just like some people love olives and some people think those pungent little blobs of stone-concealing disgustingness belong in the garbage.
So, if the person who’s document your proofreading likes and uses the Oxford comma, that really is the end of the matter. If the style guide created or used by the publisher or company you’re proofreading for favours the Oxford comma then, again, that really is the end of the matter. The Oxford comma is in and the Oxford comma remains.
Likewise, if an author, publisher company do not favour the Oxford comma or employ a style guide that doesn’t favour the Oxford comma (e.g. The Associated Press Stylebook), then the Oxford comma is a no-no.
It doesn’t matter how much you love or loathe the Oxford comma. It’s not your call. Sorry. It’s a mean ole world.
But there are exceptions.
There are – as far as I know – no situations where an Oxford comma has caused a grammatical or semantical problem. Opposition to the Oxford comma is largely based upon its inelegance. It can be seen as visually cluttering a sentence. But – as the Dude once said – well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
There are, however, occasions when the lack of an Oxford comma can be problematic.
When an Oxford Comma can be Problematic
Opponents of the Oxford comma might suggest restructuring the sentence to avoid the need for an Oxford comma, at all:
My wife and I were sat in the hospital waiting room for three hours with a drunk and a drug addict.
But it’s really a matter of opinion.
And that's it: a proofreader's guide to the Oxford comma. I told you it wouldn't take long.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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