The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday January 17th

Viewpoints: To Oxford comma, or not to Oxford comma?

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The use of the Oxford comma is a hotly debated topic among journalists and grammar enthusiasts. 

The AP Stylebook — the guiding stylebook for many news outlets, including The Daily Tar Heel — advises against using the Oxford comma in most simple series.

After engaging in a heated debate at our most recent Editorial Board meeting, we decided to resolve the issue in the most democratic way possible: a Twitter poll. Of those who participated in the poll, 80.7% said they were in favor of the Oxford comma. 

Here's where some members of the DTH stand:

Krista Nichols, copy chief:

I was pro-Oxford comma in my personal life until very recently, when I suddenly remembered learning about commas in first grade. Commas replace the “and” or “or” in lists, my teacher explained to us. 

This memory made something click in present-day Krista’s brain: the Oxford comma is unnecessary, because including it when “and” or “or” is also present is redundant. It’s as simple as that.

Heidi Pérez-Moreno, assistant audience engagement editor:

Look, I love commas. They’re great and can help break apart complicated phrases and words in any sentence. But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing as well. 

If I write that I went to the store to buy apples, oranges and bananas, it should be assumed that the three items are separate. Adding the extra comma between oranges and bananas is a waste of time, unnecessary and stupid. 

If your sentence is so complicated that it needs an Oxford comma, maybe rewrite your sentence and then reevaluate your life. 

(Also, saying Oxford commas are acceptable in some cases because the AP Stylebook says so is bogus and antiquated. The AP Stylebook has also said in the past that undocumented immigrants can be referred to as illegal aliens, so please throw that argument out the window.)

Ben Rappaport, Editorial Board member:

It is no secret that the AP Stylebook has been wrong before. Their failure to include the Oxford comma is just one more example of their failures. 

Journalistic writing should aim to strike a conversational tone with the reader and bring them along on the journey of the story the writer is trying to tell. AP Style is the standard mechanism for achieving such a tone, but it fails dramatically in this instance. 

When a list is read aloud, it usually goes as follows: lions (pause) tigers (pause) and bears (pause). These pauses are indicated in the English language through the use of commas. However, standard AP Style would have you believe that the list should be written: lions, tigers and bears. This version only has one pause and is therefore not conversational. 

This style of writing is antiquated, and does not align with the conversational tone the modern journalist ought to be striking with their readers.

Vance Stiles, Editorial Board member:

Not using an Oxford comma is elitist. The goal of written communication is to be clear and concise. The Oxford comma fulfills both of these roles. It clearly defines lists while only taking up a modicum of space on the page. 

To not use the Oxford comma is like talking with a snooty accent. The person you are speaking to may miss out in understanding, become confused, and wonder why the person they’re speaking to thinks of themselves so highly. To shun the comma leads to assumptions being made and opens the door to misinterpretation, roadblocks to effective communication. 

Within more “educated” circles, the lack of use feels like a “wink” to others in that circle, and a slap in the face to those not in the circle. Good riddance to you, comma elites. 

Caitlyn Yaede, Editorial Board member:

I firmly believe that the Oxford comma is the most critical piece of punctuation in the entire English language. No other character can provide clarity and conciseness like the Oxford comma does. 

As we write elaborate sentences or construct detailed lists, the Oxford comma is there to organize and space out our ideas in an understandable way. The Oxford comma keeps a sentence well-structured and easy to read, which is necessary to convey our thoughts and maintain a connection with the reader. 

If you have ever written in APA or Chicago styles, you are probably familiar with the benefits of the Oxford comma. But if you have ever written using AP style guidelines, you are probably familiar with how often you are forced to restructure sentences when you cannot use this comma. 

The Oxford comma makes a sentence more clear and should be a staple in all English writing.

Layla Peykamian, Editorial Board member:

The purpose of writing is communication. To express oneself to another, create an opportunity for dialogue and expression. None of this can be achieved if there is a fundamental lack of understanding between reader and writer. None of this can be achieved without the Oxford comma. 

The Oxford comma provides clarity and understanding in various sentences, most notably when writing in a list format. In my opinion, grammar toes the line of bureaucratic red tape and exclusionism when it prevents comprehension. The inability to utilize the Oxford comma, in all of its sensible joy, is an example of this elitism. 

If comprehension for any reader can be aided with the use of a comma, the comma is valid, and the AP Stylebook is not. If a comma brings more people to the table or even remotely encourages one to continue reading, it is helping the writer achieve their goal of communication and inclusion for all readers. 

Paige Masten, opinion editor:

People LOVE to bring up examples of sentences that are confusing when you leave out the Oxford comma. 

But, in my professional opinion, a sentence that doesn’t make sense without that extra comma is a poorly written and unclear sentence to begin with. 

The Oxford comma is not the only way to add clarity! As journalists, we should rely on words to make our writing clear — not punctuation.

And to all of you saying not using the Oxford comma is elitist: the Oxford comma is called the Oxford comma for a reason. It's also sometimes referred to as the "Harvard comma" because the Oxford and Harvard University Press style guides require it. I rest my case. 


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