Hello, my name is Sam, and I love the Oxford comma.
All my life, I’ve been taught to use this punctuation to glue three or more things together in a sentence to ensure everything makes sense. I didn’t really question this until I started working for Recruiters Websites, where we most often follow AP (Associated Press) Style for copywriting—from website content to social media posts. Aside from a few papers in college, my knowledge of AP Style was pretty much nonexistent—so I had some learning to do before writing my first article.
You may be thinking, “Why are we even talking about this?” I get it; it’s such a small thing, but it can make a world of difference.
What is an Oxford Comma?
The Oxford, or serial, comma is placed between the last two items in a series of three or more. Use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, meaning that some style guides (Chicago Manual of Style, for one) demand its use while others don’t. AP Style—the style guide that most journalists adhere to—omits the comma before the conjunction in a simple series (The flag is red, white and blue.), except when using it would prevent misreading (I love my parents, Cher and Elvis).
Where did the Oxford comma come from?
Just as there is confusion about its use, there’s confusion about its origin. Some say it was introduced when the comma itself was created in the 15th century by Italian printer Aldo Manuzio. Others credit Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915, who wrote Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905 as a style guide for the employees working at the press.
It wasn’t actually referred to as the “Oxford comma” until the 1978 book by Peter Sutcliff about the history of the Oxford University Press. Sutcliff credited F. Howard Collins with introducing the Oxford comma in his 1912 book Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists.
What is AP Style?
AP Style provides guidelines for news writing used for many newspapers, magazines and public relations offices across the United States. Its purpose is to promote uniformity for ease of reading and a common understanding.
The content of newspapers and other mass media is typically produced by many different writers and editors working together. AP Style gives consistent guidelines in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation and language usage. Some guiding principles behind AP Style are consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity. AP Style also aims to avoid stereotypes and unintentionally offensive language. Other quirks you may notice in AP Style are fewer abbreviations (days, months and state names are spelled out), minimal capitalization (proper nouns, derivatives and titles only when before a name) and dates written with figures only (no cute add-ons like st, nd, rd, th, etc.).
Why do we have the Oxford comma if not everyone uses it?
I mean, it’s a good point and a great question. Its true purpose is to ward off ambiguity. Whether you use it or abstain, your sentence is most likely grammatically correct, regardless—unlike ending punctuation or beginning capitalization. It’s a stylistic preference with a cult following. People devoted to the Oxford comma think it is precise and symmetrical. People who shun the Oxford comma find it fussy and unnecessary. Neither camps are wrong, so who’s to say?
At the end of the day, it comes to personal preference. There is no right or wrong answer for this little guy, and that means everyone can have an opinion without offense. Though you won’t often see them at Recruiters Websites, that doesn’t mean you can’t request we use them for your company’s project. Reach out today to see what we can do for you!
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