AP softens on the Oxford comma

“We don’t ban the Oxford comma.”

That was the subject line of an email the Associated Press Stylebook editors recently sent to subscribers. To anyone who’s been on the frontlines of the comma wars, the message seemed like an olive branch — or possibly a white flag.

Not familiar with the Oxford comma controversy? It’s a tempest in a teapot — a trumped-up battle between people who eschew an optional comma, called the Oxford or serial comma, and the devotees of this little punctuation mark.

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, comes before the conjunction in a list of three or more things. If you write, “The flag is red, white, and blue,” you’re using an Oxford comma. If you write, “The flag is red, white and blue,” you’re not. Either way, you’re using correct punctuation because this comma is optional.

The publishing world’s two major style guides take different positions on whether editors should use this comma. The Chicago Manual of Style, followed by many book and magazine publishers, is in favor.

“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma — known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma — should appear before the conjunction,” says the Chicago manual’s 17th edition, adding for emphasis: “Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage.”

AP is mostly opposed. “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in most simple series,” the stylebook advises. But unlike Chicago, AP editors don’t use the next sentence to strenuously underscore their point. Instead, AP emphasizes that the rule is flexible. “Include a final comma in a simple series if omitting it could make the meaning unclear.” Dig a little deeper into the Chicago manual and you see they make exceptions, too, albeit reluctantly. I explain why in my recent column.

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