By: The Echo Editorial Board
I love my friends, Ed Sheeran and C. S. Lewis.
I love my friends, Ed Sheeran, and C. S. Lewis.
At first glance, these two sentences are exactly alike. The words and their order have not changed. The only difference is a single comma, added to the series directly before the "and." Its name? The Oxford comma.
In the writing style used for journalism, created by the Associated Press (AP), the Oxford comma is practically taboo. When used in a simple series, the Oxford comma is deemed clunky and a waste of space.
"To add a comma to a simple series would be to add an extra, unnecessary bit for the reader to wade through," said Paula Froke, executive director of Associated Press Media Editors and editor of the AP Stylebook.
This decision was first included in the AP Stylebook in 1953 to represent a new trend in American journalism. The 1953 style guide wanted to create an element of consistency and unity between all journalistic writings. The omission of the Oxford comma was a perfect way to illustrate what was already a trend in published journals of the 1950s.
Over the years, even as recent as the publication of the 2017 stylebook, AP has returned to the issue of the Oxford comma. Yet, according to Froke, it does not hold a position of high importance. Newspaper writers and editors, such as Alan Blanchard, associate professor of journalism and The Echo faculty advisor, believe in a more minimalistic approach to writing and punctuation. The existing trend of simply following AP guidelines helps further entrench the trend of disuse for the Oxford comma.
In a recent discussion, however, the Echo Editorial Board reached a non-conclusive yet majority opinion that the Oxford comma is an important aspect of clear writing. If the disuse of the Oxford comma is meant to make writing clearer, what about those who see it as a helpful tool to prevent readers' confusion? Froke said the AP Stylebook recommends use of the Oxford comma in more complex lists.
"In reality, we likely use the Oxford comma in far more cases than we omit it," Froke said.
Since such situations exist, would it not be clearer to use the Oxford in all series, complex and simple?
Assistant Professor of Professional Writing Linda K. Taylor believes so. According to Taylor, the Oxford comma brings clarity as a natural addition to articles. While her experience as an editor is in styles other than AP, Taylor believes knowing the stylebook for newspapers is more important than personal opinion.
"The Associated Press set style guidelines, when there is a choice or ambiguity . . .," Blanchard said. "It does this to avoid confusion when newspaper reporter stories are shared . . . Otherwise, if reporters were left to their own Oxford comma pro or con bias, there would undoubtedly be a mixture of both the absence and presence of Oxford commas."
So yes, AP does provide a useful guideline for when one should and should not include the Oxford comma. Without the influence of the style guide, articles within The Echo itself would feel incoherent; a jumbled mess of commas and "ands" instead of a cohesive publication. As long as AP style is against the use of the Oxford comma, The Echo will continue to follow such guidelines.
Perhaps one day, however, larger newspapers will reinstate the Oxford comma and the Associated Press will once more change their stylebook to reflect journalistic style. Until then, writers who favor the Oxford comma may have to content themselves with writing more complex series in their articles.