Oh, Oxford comma, how mixed are my feelings for you? (Not very mixed, as it turns out.)
Use of the Oxford comma, or serial comma, is a controversial subject in writing circles. I was once in a multi-continent tech writing phone meeting that devolved into an argument about whether or not to include it in the company style guide. It was 7pm my time, and signed out, telling them to let me know when they had finalized the guide. I would never willingly give up my Babylon 5 fix for an argument about any stylistic choice!
And in the end, that’s what the Oxford comma debate boils down to, especially in technical writing.
Perils of No Oxford Comma
We’ve probably all read the memes: “he invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Or, “My heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman.” These options have easy fixes that don’t require the serial comma:
- Rearrange the sentence (note, this can change the emphasis on items in the list):
- “We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers.”
- “My heroes are Superman, Wonder Woman and my parents.”
- Use the @#*$@* comma!
The Oxford Comma Matters Less in Tech Writing
Why? Because most style guides already specify that we should pull any list over two items long out into bullet points. Doing this keep clarity, avoiding the above mentioned ambiguity. We can also put the emphasis where we want it by ordering the list items.
Follow Your Style Guide
The AP style guide famously (or infamously, depending on your side of the debate), forbids the use of the serial comma. The background on this is that any space you could save in newsprint was money saved. And despite first glances, losing the Oxford comma saves a lot of space!
An argument could be made that print media is mostly dead now, and this kind of rule no longer matters. Possible. But if your publication is using a style guide, whether or not it includes the serial comma, follow it! Consistency is the most important thing after accuracy in a body of work.
Building a New Style Guide
If you’re tasked with building a new style guide for your organization I recommend considering the following before deciding on whether or not to mandate the serial comma:
- Are most of your documents going to be printed? Cost benefit might suggest leaving it out.
- Are most of your documents online? Flip a coin. Really. As long as your writers will follow it, it doesn’t really matter cost-wise, and if you’re going to mandate bulleted lists, it matters even less.
- Do you have a lot of possibly ambiguous lists in your documents and dislike bulleted lists? Include it.
In the End
In the end, what’s important is what the chosen style guide says. Follow it.
Do you think your style guide should include use of the Oxford comma? Why or why not? Let’s revisit the “discussion” in the comments! Play nice. I don’t mind disagreements, but mean-spirited comments or attacks will not be approved.
Like this post? You might like other posts in the Writing Technique category.