By Kae Warnock
Why such a fuss about the Oxford Comma?
Why do legislatures care?
Those in favor of the Oxford comma—or serial comma—say that in prevents ambiguity. Those opposed find it redundant.
So where did the Oxford comma come from?
While the “Oxford comma” is the namesake of the Oxford University Press, it was not invented there. Rather, Frederick Howard Collins, in Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary, University Press Oxford 1905, quotes author Herbert Spencer as justification for the punctuation:
“Whether to write ‘black, white, and green,’ with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write ‘black, white and green’ — I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.”
Whether this comma usage was a common practice at the time or something that Spencer and Collins decided to create, I do not know. But this sanctioning of the serial comma eventually led to it being referred to as the “Oxford comma”.
But what is the Oxford comma anyway?
The Oxford comma is the last comma in a series before the conjunction. In the example below, the conjunction is the word “and.”
Mary hired a young athlete, an archer, and a pianist.
The Oxford comma tells the reader that there are three people who were hired by Mary. Or does it? Another interpretation is that two people were hired. One person is an athlete also known as an archer. The other person is a pianist.
Without the Oxford comma, there is room for some ambiguity, depending on interpretation.
Mary hired a young athlete, an archer and a pianist.
If we remove the Oxford comma, then two possible interpretations of the sentence arise.
- Three people could have been hired.
- One person, an athlete, was hired who is both an archer and a pianist.
In bill drafting, elimination of ambiguity is paramount.
There are two schools of thought as to the best way to clarify lists. At least 27 states currently use the Oxford comma in drafting their bills. But even in some of those states drafters have told me they find examples of older laws that are not written using the serial or Oxford comma.
At least nine states avoid using the Oxford comma in drafting legislation.
Why is this important to legislatures?
Each camp—pro-Oxford comma and anti-Oxford comma—can refer to court decisions that were made based upon a comma or a lack of a comma.
If use, or lack of use, of the serial comma did not create ambiguity no one would be talking about the Oxford comma. But case law tells us that punctuation matters and that the courts may find ambiguity in either style.
Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services program.