OPINION: TSL won’t let me use the Oxford comma — and that’s a problem

(Joanne Oh • The Student Life)

Here’s a fact you might not know unless you’ve worked in journalism before: nearly every major journalistic body in the country prohibits the use of the Oxford comma. This is to follow the AP Stylebook, the New York Times Stylebook, the Economist Stylebook, the Canadian Press Style Guide and many more central grammatical authorities of English language journalism. Unless you’re an annoying nerd, you probably don’t know the ins and outs of the Oxford comma debate — but don’t worry. This TSL opinionator will come to the rescue and give you an extremely one-sided take on the controversial grammatical convention.

The central goal of grammar is to ensure writing is always coherent — and it was for this reason the Oxford comma was created. There are many sentences in which the absence of an Oxford comma creates ambiguity and confusion. Take this example: “I, Rowan, leave my estate to Peter, Mary and Paul.” See how it’s ambiguous? Am I trying to say “I leave 50 percent of my estate to Peter and 50 percent to Mary and Paul” or “I am leaving 33 percent to each?” Now let’s add an Oxford comma: “I, Rowan, leave my estate to Peter, Mary, and Paul.” Much better.

Man, that example was boring. Let’s take a spicier one: “I invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Look at that, more ambiguity! Are the strippers named JFK and Stalin, or did I invite strippers and two long-dead political leaders to whatever mysterious function I’m hosting? 

The Oxford comma conundrum might seem like a niche issue, but it can have substantial real-world impacts. Take the case of a Maine dairy company which, because of a single missing Oxford comma, was successfully sued by its truck drivers for $10,000,000 in back pay. I bet that lawyer wishes they had never heard of the AP Stylebook.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a good chance that you regularly use the Oxford Comma — a poll from FiveThirtyEight found that 57 percent of Americans always use it, meaning more than half of Americans are grammatically alienated from their news by the absence of that all-important comma. A 7 percent majority might seem slim, but it’s impressive considering the years of effort that the authoritarian AP Stylebook has spent incorrectly insisting that the Oxford comma be kept out of English. 

If the goal of our newspapers and our writing is to express our truths with maximum clarity, the absence of the Oxford comma is a senseless tragedy — a blight on the English language. It represents a desire by the elitist designers of the AP Stylebook to make “proper writing” hard to understand to the average American. But they don’t own the English language — we do.

If you’ve made it this far into a grammar article, then hopefully you’re convinced that the Oxford comma is at a minimum highly controversial. This is all you should need to oppose the AP Stylebook and all other grammar “authorities” that oppose the legendary comma. English is, at its core, a highly experimental language that often employs flexible grammar, spelling and pronunciations. This is part of why English is so beautiful: it enables people from all around the world to contribute to a common corpus of communication. Sure, it’s unnecessarily complicated, inconsistent and hard to learn — but those are the sacrifices we have to make to keep English as diverse as it is.

Stylebooks that work to cement certain controversial grammatical conventions strip our language of its diverse beauty and make our language and by extension our lives, less interesting, less fluid and less purposeful. This article might be easy to brush off as a niche piece for the grammar nerds, but this nerd asks you: what can have more of an impact on the way you live than the very method by which you express your thoughts to the world?

Rowan Gray CM ’26 is from Sharon, Massachusetts. He wants you to know that all Oxford commas in this piece were violently deleted by his copy editors.

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