The Oxford Comma's History, Explained

Whether you use the Oxford comma or not — and you absolutely should — you'll probably find yourself in a conversation about it eventually. But very few people know the Oxford comma's history, not even its devotees. Thankfully, Vox has saved our bacon with a new video detailing just that.

Almost every print or digital publication has different rules regarding punctuation and spelling, often collected in a document called the style guide. Most style guides will include a note about that newspaper or website's policy on the Oxford comma. It's that important.

If you aren't aware, the Oxford comma — also known as the serial comma — is the final comma before "and" in a series. Your primary school teacher might have told you that it was optional, and that's true, to a certain extent. However, there are many situations in which the Oxford comma makes sense to use, not because it is grammatically incorrect to leave it out, but because it makes your meaning more clear.

The confusion usually arises when the Oxford comma is left off of a series of three items. Because English's loosey-goosey punctuation rules occasionally allow for the use of a comma instead of a colon or dash, that little squiggle may be used to introduce new information. It may not be the best choice, but it is a valid one.

Here's where it gets interesting. Let's say I tell you, "These are my cats, President Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg." Did I name my pets after prominent, contemporary political figures? Am I introducing you to my cats, the president, and a Supreme Court justice? Are you the POTUS and Notorious RBG? It just isn't clear.

Some grammar purists don't want anything to change about how we write and speak. Those folks might look to the origins of the Oxford comma to determine whether they should use it. The problem is, punctuation is optional, and always has been.

As it turns out, the Oxford comma was first championed by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who lauded its ability to add clarity to otherwise murky sentences. Vox's Phil Edwards calls Spencer "a classic Victorian generalist ... who did philosophy and science." He coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," but was later largely forgotten by history as Darwin ascended to stardom.

Spencer loved the Oxford comma for the "efficiency and clarity" it offered, the same reasons that many contemporary fans adore it. Even though we live in the era of the Bible Emoji, the Oxford comma is still just as important today as it was in Spencer's time.

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