Whether you love it or hate it, if you think the Associated Press Stylebook decided to ban Oxford Commas, you should reread what it says!
I ran across a recent college newspaper column lamenting the claim that AP Style would ban Oxford Commas from its members’ writing.
The columnist likes Oxford Commas. The columnists’ editors apparently do not.
I find them unnecessary in most cases. But when they are necessary, they tend to be very necessary to avoid confusion.
So what is the Oxford comma?
First things first. You will find the definition ridiculously easy. It’s the final comma in a list of things that precedes the and. Consider this example from Grammarly:
Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.
That final comma, right after the word eraser, is the Oxford Comma. Some believe you must use the Oxford Comma every time you write a list. I don’t understand that mentality. But to supporters of the Oxford Comma, you must be viligant in your dedication to its use.
Consider now the same sentence without that last comma:
Please bring me a pencil, eraser and notebook.
I’m sorry, but I have to ask this. Do you suddenly feel lost? Are you honestly unable to understand that sentence? Do you think the eraser and notebook are fused into a single item that can’t be separated?
Of course you don’t.
The sentence doesn’t lose its meaning just because it lost that final comma. The and serves the same purpose. In a simple list like that, I fiund the Oxford Comma redundant.
The columnist seems to disagree.
The column argues the little mark is “deeply important for the organization, clarity and aesthetics in any writing.”
It can be. But it isn’t always so “deeply important.” I believe I just illustrated that.
“Tragically, AP Style prohibits me from modeling this,” the columnist writes. “I am confined to writing lists that are confusing, unattractive and frankly barbaric because of the accursed AP Stylebook.”
The more I read this column, the more I’m beginning to think it was an April Fools joke published six months late.
There’s even a quote from a student who labels the omission of an Oxford Comma “disrespectful.” She goes on to say that anyone who doesn’t use an Oxford Comma is showing her — in her opinion — that “they don’t think I’m worth their time.”
Oh, dear Lord.
It’s a comma, people. It isn’t the meaning of life.
This has to be a joke.
Please tell me it’s a joke.
AP Style didn’t ban Oxford Commas
There’s one more little tidbit that’s worth noting. I’m not sure whether the columnist or his or her editors got things mixed up. But AP Style doesn’t ban the Oxford Comma.
AP Style is the style convention the majority of journalists use when they write. Even television stations use AP Style in their web writing, even if they don’t use it in the more conversational broadcast scripts.
There are a handful of other styles out there, but AP Style is surely the biggest.
“…I was appalled when my editors informed me that my use of the Oxford comma was a violation of Associated Press Style and therefore had to be removed from my article,” the columnist writes.
He or she links to a tweet from AP answering a question about the Oxford Comma:
Like the earlier example, the sentence remains perfectly clear without the extra comma. You don’t have to see it to understand the sentence unless you’re just being obtuse.
Ironically, the linked tweet is the second in a string of four.
Perhaps the columnist and the editors need to have not skipped over the first one:
AP Style does not prohibit the mark’s use. It even gives its own example of when it would be “necessary:”
In this case, you use an Oxford Comma between the words toast and and because “ham and eggs” is a single thing, not two separate items. You wouldn’t write, “I had orange juice, toast, ham, and eggs” unless you had ham on the side and it wasn’t cooked with the eggs. But since “ham and eggs” is a single dish cooked and served as one, they used an Oxford Comma to reinforce that fact.
Consider this example.
YourDictionary.com offers this interesting example of a sentence that might seriously need an Oxford Comma:
We were given this information by the Congressman, a liar and a cheat.
As written, it could be read as saying the Congressman himself is a liar and a cheat. Whether you read it that way depends on your political persuasion.
But if three different people provided the information to the writer, you’d definitely need that extra comma to clarify that point:
We were given this information by the Congressman, a liar, and a cheat.
You can only interpret the second sentence with the Oxford Comma one way.
If you intend to disparage the Congressman, one could read the first sentence — where the Oxford Comma doesn’t belong — two ways.
Still, AP Style says that if it makes a sentence more clear, you should use the Oxford Comma.
If you’re illustrating what an Oxford Comma is, I’d certainly allow its use in a column. You could reasonably argue it’s more clear to show it in action than to simply describe it and hope people you’re trying to educate about it will understand.
Maybe everyone at that newspaper should review AP’s tweets — all four of them, not just one.