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Who inspires me? My parents, Terry Fox and Sandra Oh

By Lauren Peebles, March 1 2021—

No, my parents are not Terry Fox and Sandra Oh. Confused? You are not alone. The use and need for the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, has puzzled many for decades.

What is the Oxford comma? The Oxford comma is a form of punctuation used in a list of three or more words to help communicate a specific meaning. If I had used an Oxford comma, the title of this article would have read “Who inspires me? My Parents, Terry Fox, and Sandra Oh.”

From 1883 to 1915, Horace Hart was the printer and controller of the Oxford University Press. Hart has been credited as the first published proponent of the comma. Hart wrote a writing style guide entitled Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers where it was entitled the serial comma. It was not until 1978 when Peter Sutcliff first referred to this type of comma as “the Oxford comma.”

The use of the Oxford comma between the second to last and the last word of a list helps communicate that the items in the list should be treated with equal weight. Without the Oxford comma, the second to last and last word may seem to be components relating to the first word.

Opponents of the Oxford comma cite over-use of punctuation as diluting the punch of language, words and punctuation. Some opponents also cite the Oxford comma as a relic of the past embodying elitism. In addition, opponents assert that the meaning of the list in question could be taken from context, intent and communication of that intent.

However, context is not always obvious. Perhaps my parents are Sandra Oh and Terry Fox. In addition, determining context is often difficult for those with different learning abilities. For example, children with Autism have more difficulty assessing context and meaning in written work.

Proponents of the Oxford comma cite many reasons why writing should include use of the Oxford comma. However, each one of these can be concisely summarized as reasons for clarity of communication. As stated above, context is not always clear — especially for those who communicate differently than most of the population.

Whether one is for or against the Oxford comma, scholars agree that its use or absence should be consistent. The Canadian Press (CP) recommends to only use it when not using it would be ambiguous. Ironically, the Oxford University Press now suggests against the use of this type of punctuation unless necessary for communication.

The bottom line for many scholars and me is this — writing is about communication. Punctuation exists to assist in communication. In addition, the absence of the Oxford comma for the sake of conforming to grammatical rules could result in absurdities in writing.

Ultimately, it is up to the writer to communicate effectively and not for the audience to try and discern what meaning words have through context.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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