How and When to Use the Oxford Comma

The Argument is Ongoing,
Contentious, and Real

Recently, we spoke with a friend of CompuScripts  Court Reporting who was using a dating website for the first time.  In her profile, she listed three questions to be answered before she would agree to a date:

  • Are you allergic to dogs?
  • Do you like to travel?
  • Where do you stand on the Oxford comma?

The last question sounds as if it were meant in jest, but as a company whose stock-in-trade is words, we know that both proponents and opponents take the answer very seriously.  Therefore, CompuScripts would like to discuss how and when to use the Oxford comma.

The Definition

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is a comma placed before the conjunction in a list of three or more words or phrases.  Its use is attributed to Horace Hart, who included it in “Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers,” his 1905 style guide for the Oxford University Press.  The following are examples of the use of the Oxford comma:

  • A court reporter masters organization, efficiency, and punctuality.
  • The court reporting profession is lucrative, rewarding, and important.
  • The deposition transcript was complete, accurate, and on time.

The Debate

Court reporters and others who are proponents of the Oxford comma are fierce in their loyalty.  Due to this loyalty, this little punctuation mark even has its own Twitter and Facebook accounts.  This debate over the use of the Oxford comma is between those who believe it should always be used for clarity and those who believe it is not necessary. Consider these sentences:

  • The attorney asked for names, addresses, and cell phone numbers
  • The attorney asked for names, addresses and cell phone numbers.

In either example, we understand that the attorney asked for three distinct pieces of information.  Now, consider this sentence:

  • Attorney Jones loved her court reporters, Lady Gaga, and Cap’n Crunch.
  • Attorney Jones loved her court reporters, Lady Gaga and Cap’n Crunch.

In the first sentence, Attorney Jones loves three things.  However, the second sentence suggests that icons of popular music and breakfast cereal record Attorney Jones’ depositions. As a result, the Oxford comma is necessary for understanding.

The Solution

One way to decide whether or not to use the Oxford comma is to follow a style guide.  A style guide is a set of standards for writers to follow.  CompuScripts uses The Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual to answer questions about grammar and punctuation.  Each of these style guides recommends the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.  In contrast, the Associated Press Stylebook recommends use of the Oxford comma only when its omission could lead to confusion or misinterpretation.  Regardless of the style guide you choose to use, it is important to be consistent in your use or disuse of the Oxford comma.

CompuScripts dedicates itself to providing accurate, timely, and accessible transcripts.  Therefore, our deposition transcripts go through rigorous review before they are produced.  Because words
— and punctuation marks — matter, contact CompuScripts Court Reporters and Legal Videographers.