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The Oxford comma and other redundant commas

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Do you dislike the Oxford comma? Last month the Guardian reported how, on her appointment as Health Secretary, Therese Coffey wrote to her staff asking them to avoid the Oxford comma in their communications with her. The Oxford comma is apparently her pet hate. Punctuation matters, but how strange that she should make it such a high priority when the NHS faces so many greater challenges! The fact remains that people care about commas and many don’t like the Oxford comma.

It was the Oxford University Press that originally advocated the use of the Oxford Comma. It’s also known as the “serial comma” because it’s typically used in lists.

Here are two examples of the Oxford comma which I’ve taken from The Times and Sunday Times Style Guide. The Oxford comma is the one that appears before the “and” in the list.

“He ate bread, butter, and jam.”

“For lunch they had lamb with roast potatoes, and chocolate mousse.”

You can see that in the first sentence the final comma is redundant, but in the second it clarifies the meaning.

Oxford commas and other commas

The Economist Style Guide explains that in the US writers and publishers use the Oxford comma while in the UK most writers do not. This seems to be true. I have noticed that American writers often use commas far more generously than we tend to in the UK, and this is not just the Oxford comma. Commas have many other legitimate purposes. Where an additional clause is inserted into a sentence commas can substitute for brackets, and they act as a separator between related thoughts or clauses.

Language is always evolving. If you’re familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, you’ll know that she often expresses her thoughts in very long sentences. Sentences of fifty words are common in Austen’s work, and she could easily write a sentence with a hundred words. This can make her novels feel dated and difficult to read. However, if you should be reading Austen aloud, as I think the readers of her time would have done, the commas are useful. They give you places to breathe and make the reading much easier.

Using commas in business communications

As a writer who often writes thoughts down as soon as they appear, I find commas invaluable to clarify where one idea ends and the next begins. Yet I also appreciate that modern business writing is best when it is free from the clutter of extra commas.

The bulk of today’s business content is written for the web and needs to be simple and easy to read online. We know that human readers and search engines can read shorter sentences more easily. With this in mind, if a sentence seems too long, the writer may do well to rearrange it as two sentences. Copy for the web and SEO works best when the sentences are shorter and flow together. As I explained above, the Oxford comma can still have a role, but current writing conventions are tending to make other commas redundant as well.

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