The Oxford comma

Why do US American sources refer to the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma)? My old copy of the Chicago Style Manual doesn’t call it that. It’s the standard thing in the USA. In the UK, the Oxford University Press famously differs from the many in permitting -ize as well as -ise (subject of another rant since someone in the EU has decided it must always be -ise) and in supporting the use of the serial comma.

Court cases about punctuation are always fun. The latest one was in the USA and concerns the following text:

(Overtime rules do not apply to:)
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Should it be packing for shipment or distribution, or packing for shipment, or distribution? that is, does it refer to distribution, or just to two kinds of packing?

The New York Times reports:
Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute

It refers to the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which says this about commas:

Commas are probably the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal
drafting and, perhaps, the English language. Use them thoughtfully and sparingly.

A. Series. Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.

Do not write:
Trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers
Write: Trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers

The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual does not call it the Oxford comma. What British person has been influencing the US media this week?

LATER NOTE: Lynne Murphy says ‘Oxford comma’ is the more common term in USA and there is a song by Vampire Weekend, ‘Oxford Comma’. Wikipedia has more:

On January 28, 2008, Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair interviewed Ezra Koenig regarding the title of the song and its relevance to the song’s meaning. Koenig said he first encountered the Oxford comma (a comma used before the conjunction at the end of a list) after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. The idea for the song came several months later while Koenig was sitting at a piano in his parents’ house. He began “writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?'” He stated that the song “is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

It looks to me, but what do I know, as if the term was taken up because it seemed weird. Lynne says (on Twitter) that the Chicago Manual would not call it the Oxford comma because OUP is a rival publisher. I’m not now going to research how long the term has been used in the USA because it is very low on my list of things to do.


I see I actually posted about this song in 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Oxford comma

  1. Well, I used to write more in the blog 10 years ago!
    I agree with The Onion that grammar rage seems to be as bad as road rage.

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