The role of the Oxford Comma in nonprofit communications


cat-and-dog-975023_960_720Hi everyone, today we must address an issue that has been causing much tension, grief, and consternation in our sector, as well as in other fields. This is an issue that has ruined friendships, pitted family members against each other, and caused numerous heartbreaking divorces. Normally, this would refer to restricted funding. But today, I am actually talking about the Oxford Comma.

The Oxford Comma, or serial comma, is the last comma in a sentence like this: “Please get hummus, broccoli, baby carrots, and pita chips for the finance meeting.” It is used when listing out a bunch of things, and always comes before the word “and” or “or.” Some people have been advocating for us all to do away with this comma altogether, while others have been vociferously defending it. Both sides have created t-shirts, a sign of unyielding conviction in our society.

In light of this contentiousness, I would like to initiate an objective, balanced discussion on the Oxford Comma by saying: ALL Y’ALL WHO WANT TO GET RID OF THE OXFORD COMMA ARE WRONG, WRONG, AND WRONG!!!

Before I launch into why the OC is so important, I want to provide a quick disclaimer. I am not a grammarian or punctuarian or one to get riled up over mistakes (unless it’s “literally,” in which case, I may shank you in the bustle of your next gala). In fact, I make mistakes quite often. Some of this is due to the fact that I was born and grew up in another country; and some due to the fact that Daredevil Season 2 on Netflix is not just going to watch itself. However, one does not need to have perfect grammar or punctuation to see the Oxford Comma for the practical, vital, and sexy punctuation that it is, and why we must preserve it in all nonprofit communications. Here are five main arguments for why we must keep the Oxford Comma:

It mimics natural speech. Punctuation marks weren’t invented just for fun, like virtual reality or broccolini. No, each one has a special role. The period, for example, represents a full-stop in thought. The exclamation point represents urgency or strong emotions! And the #hashtag represents the subtle but gradual destruction of our society. The beautiful comma, then, represents a slight pause. When we list out things, we tend to pause between items, for clarity: “Please email me our latest financial statement (pause), balance sheet (pause), and updated budget (full-stop).” Without the OC, it just seems rushed, like you’re a grantwriter trying to quickly finish the last of the narrative before the online deadline hits: “We serve low-income preschoolers, children, youth-and-elders-oh-God-please-let-me-submit-this-in-time-why-did-I-watch-three-episodes-of-Daredevil-last-night-instead-of-working-on-this-proposal-I’m-so-screwed.”

It brings clarity: This is critical. Read this sentence: “I look up to my board co-chairs, Bill Gates and Tina Fey.” Dude, your board co-chairs are Bill Gates and Tina screen shot 2015-05-01 at 12.11.15 pmFey?! That’s awesome! Now, with the Oxford Comma, it means something else completely: “I look up to my board co-chairs, Bill Gates, and Tina Fey.” You look up to these people, but Bill Gates and Tina Fey are probably not on your board.

It keeps things separate: “And” is one of the most used words in the world. It is magical; it connects two separate things, like peanut butter and jelly, or wine and cheese, or Oreos and pickles. The Oxford comma keeps separate the things that should be separate. Otherwise it would be gross and confusing, like this: “Please pick some some apples, ice cream, a tub of lard and chocolate.” A tub of lard and chocolate?! Gross! In some situations, it may be more serious. I saw this in a nonprofit’s bylaws: “The officers of the organization shall include a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.” So wait, is that three people, with the secretary and treasurer a combination position? That’s not unheard of, but why confuse people when a simple comma will add so much clarity?

It keeps things together: Sometimes, you want things to go together. As a commenter writes below, and as the New Yorker’s Comma Queen mentions, Robert Frost has a beautiful line in one of his poems: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” These are not three separate things. The woods are lovely, maybe because they are dark and deep.

It looks better. The Oxford Comma is not just practical, it is also aesthetically pleasing. Read these two sentences, exactly the same except one has an Oxford Comma, and one does not. With the OC: “Please make sure we have nametags, markers, and sticky dots for the retreat.” Without the OC: “Blah blah blah, doo dee dee doo derp derpity derp-dee-doo.” See?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need to eliminate the double space after periods (here’s the Proclamation). The Oxford Comma, on the other hand, for the above and other reasons, must be preserved in all our communications, with a few minor exceptions, such as on grant applications where there are character limits. The Oxford Comma is beautiful, classy, and essential. Here is the Proclamation you can print and tape up in your office. May the light of the Oxford Comma shine on us all forever and into eternity.


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92 thoughts on “The role of the Oxford Comma in nonprofit communications

  1. cfa

    I am such a fan of the Oxford comma! In the spirit of pedantry, thank you for the correct usage of “All y’all” as an expression of emphasis, not a simple plural. “Y’all” is already plural. You will never hear someone who grew up in regions of the U.S. that use “y’all” actually say “y’all” for the singular. “All y’all” would only be used for emphasis, as in “All y’all better not eat the hummus before today’s staff meeting,” translated as “Each and all of you better keep your mitts off the snacks and finish that damn spreadsheet!”

  2. MBU'town

    Thanks for perfectly illustrating the proper use of the Oxford comma, demonstrating what I read when a sentence lacks an Oxford comma, and making me smile over this necessary debate.
    I will join the “literal” shanking party and add that I will poison the next person who uses “irregardless” in my presence.

  3. CStancell

    Excellent – I couldn’t agree more! As I understand it, the effort to ditch to OC came from the field of print journalism where every fraction of a millimeter of column space mattered. However the trade off in clarity wasn’t, and isn’t, worth it!

  4. Wendy Breakwell

    Thank you so much! Finally, someone who feels the same way I do. I blame a lot of this bad grammar on texting and parents not picking these things up. This is a bugbear along with the use of incorrect words, “pacific” instead of “specific” being one. I can have a whole shanking party with this.

  5. susanfishy

    I use the Oxford comma when it helps with clarity but otherwise I do not. It clutters up some sentences, and clarifies others.

      1. NSK

        Well, you can thank your mum, the Queen, and David Cameron. She’s related to the Queen? 😉

  6. Nick

    Vu, you are so attuned to the soul of our nonprofit sector! At our last staff meeting, we actually had a 30min discussion about the Oxford comma. In complete agreement with all that you wrote, I am sending your article to my colleagues. Thank you – you just made my day!

  7. Frozenveg

    I agree wholeheartedly on the Oxford comma! However, you had me until the first sentence of your last paragraph, and I hope we can agree to disagree. I go through all documents sent to me for punctuation and clarity checks and add that second space be tween every sentence! Visually, it is much more pleasing.

    I can understand why you might want to get rid of it. Back in the early days of computer word processing, WordPerfect actually had fonts that skipped two spaces automatically after the periods, so it was unnecessary to provide two “enter” strokes to provide the division that is required between complete thoughts. However, the omnipresent Word does not do this.

    I am sure we can agree to disagree, right?

    1. Vu Le

      You…you what…? You…ADD spaces where people didn’t have them? We can definitely agree to disagree, Frozenveg, but I think it’s like agreeing to disagree on climate change. The majority of people agree to discontinue the double-space. Visually, the double-space looks like there are gopher holes scattered throughout the immaculate lawn of a pristine paragraph. And I noticed that you are not double-spacing in your comment.

      1. Frozenveg

        Actually, I did double-space in my reply. The fact that it doesn’t look like gopher holes is testament to how unobtrusive they actually are! A lot depends on the appearance of the individual font, of course. And to be clear, I only add double spaces to documents sent to me for editing, which are sprinkled with single, double, and often triple spaces after periods, along with a lot of other craziness.

        1. Frozenveg

          OK, now I’m replying to myself. To see if the double spaces I put in my reply showed up, I copied our conversation and pasted into Word. Word indicates that my double-space action produced one space. That’s interesting. It looks like the right amount of space, so perhaps what’s happening is that the computer is legislating the distance between the period and the following capital letter, despite our human actions. Not exactly one space, not exactly two…some middle ground. I’m officially creeped out.

          However, I concede. One space seems fine, at least in the font on this website!

          1. infinitebuffalo

            All space is compressed in HTML; double, triple, or octuple space your sentences and they will appear as though single spaced.

          2. Frozenveg

            Oh, thank you for that info! I had my doubts about my sanity, especially after the Chief Unicorn equated me with a climate denier in my very first ever comment on the forum. I am humbled by the wise and powerful HTML!

    1. simhedges

      Now the Oxford comma just puts too much of a pause in for me. Doesn’t “Monday in Boston” apply to snowy and dreary as well as to cold? To me, with the Oxford comma it subtly throws out the emphasis – forcing focus onto “cold Monday in Boston” and so it reads as though the day is:
      a) Snowy
      b) Dreary
      c) Cold Monday in Boston (I presume it may be Tuesday elsewhere),
      Without the OC, it seems (to me) to flow much better. I realise that this may just be what I’m used to (I live 40 miles from Oxford, and so only use its comma when absolutely necessary), but even so, it irks me.

  8. Erika Ginsberg-Klemmt

    > “I am not a grammarian or one to get riled up over mistakes…”
    That’s good, because your proofreader missed this in the second Paragraph:
    “It used when listing out a bunch of things…”

  9. Carol Clarke

    It’s getting so your wicked sense of humour is outshining the subject matter. (Not really, but I felt compelled to comment, I enjoy your articles so.)

  10. Lisa Daleiden-Brugman

    I saw a t-shirt once… “Commas save lives… Let’s eat, Grandma! OR Let’s eat Grandma!” A little off topic, but it makes me laugh, just like you do, Vu.

  11. Elizabeth Berman

    I used to be an ardent believer in the Oxford comma. Then I started working at a non-profit with a style guide that stipulated no Oxford comma.

    I was so happy to be working somewhere with a style guide that I’ve learned to live without the Oxford comma, except when required for clarity and in lists with too many ands (e.g. Three board members volunteered to bring snacks to the next meeting. I look forward to munching on pretzels, grapes, and veggies and hummus while discussing our strategic plan.)

  12. Glen

    It goes without saying that one means to ask for “spam, eggs, sausages, and spam” but not “spam, eggs, sausages and spam” . No one wants sausages and spam mashed together. It becomes more complicated, though, when you consider the following. Some folks may prefer “spam, eggs, and tomato and spam” over “spam, eggs, tomato, and spam”. Clearly, some folks may find spam and tomato minced together more appealing than having a portion of spam and a portion of tomato, separate from each other. This problem is complicated by the possibility that one group of spam aficionados may be oblivious to the other group, and therefore the members of each group may simply say “spam, eggs, tomato and spam”. If you serve the wrong dish, you will be told in so many words that you’re an idiot and you’ll have to take it back, whereupon the cook will call you an idiot for not ordering correctly.

    Use the serial comma, or don’t use it, to get your meaning across with precision. Not because someone told you to use it, or not use it, always and forever.

    Spam lovers notwithstanding, serial commas used improperly can be dangerous. Ask any lawyer who has spent hours putting in a single serial comma, and then taking it out, over and over again.

  13. drfinlay

    Should that not be, “Shank you in the bustle, at your next Gala”, assuming that it’s a costume ball of course.

  14. Jan Yaeger

    I doubt I will ever be convinced that the Oxford comma is not in most cases redundant, but you have made a valiant effort. However, one of my pet peeves is the confusion of punctuation with grammar. They are related, but more second cousins than siblings. I completely agree regarding ‘literally’ (I once saw an advertisement for a stage production that said the performers ‘literally’ explode on stage; it did not entice me to attend), and I am considering giving ‘Daredevil’ another chance.

  15. RubyJuly

    There are certainly times when the OC can bring clarity to a sentence. But in each of those examples the use or non use would still result in a funny outcome. It can be read both ways. I’m old, we know that because i still use 2 spaces after a period. But that OC still looks weird to my eye.

    1. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

      Me too. Firmly on the side of no OC and two spaces. Those two rules were drilled into me waaaaaaay back in the ’60s. This “getting up there” dog is not about to learn new tricks 🙂

  16. Lorraine Thomas

    Thank you for this cogent defense of my favorite punctuation and for the Proclamation. This was an excellent, fun, and sexy way to start my Monday.

  17. Nichole

    Printed and posted in my office for all to see. Thinking about a gilded frame. Every proclamation should have one.

  18. erica

    My reasoning to using the Oxford comma, besides all the reasons you give, has to do with Robert Frost, who wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

    When you, casual writer of policy or journalism, fail to use the Oxford comma, you rob Frost of this line, arguably one of the best, certainly one of the most famous, in American poetry. Are you Frost? No? Then you have to use the Oxford comma.

    1. Vu Le

      That is awesome, Erica. “I know Frost, and you, sir/ma’am, are no Frost! So use the Oxford Comma.”

    2. Kai

      How would we know that Frost meant dark and deep, not dark, and deep without the standard use of the oxford comma for indicating the second. We wouldn’t know and it would be awful.

  19. Susanne Theis

    While I love your blog, I’ve never been moved to comment before. You sold me on the Oxford comma!

  20. Alan Schonborn

    But, what, of the, redundancy, Vu!!?
    Like a fawn caught in your headlights on a deserted, snowy highway at night, isn’t there danger in too much pausing? And at what point does the pause turn into the appearance of hesitation; of a lack of confidence in one’s self-worth or of one’s sense of the foreboding doom that lies ahead for us all?
    Why isn’t my simple AND or OR sufficient for all those naysayers out there? Why do people always want more of me than my puppy needs?

    1. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

      Wait… how “old” is your old school? I learned NOT to use the comma back in the ’60s – so that’s why it looks so weird to me. Same with double spaces.

  21. Lisa

    My first comment on your blog! This is close to my heart. My nonprofit’s mission statement includes a list of three items, but does NOT use an Oxford comma…thereby forcing the organizational “style” to be no Oxford commas anywhere ever. It pains me EVERY TIME I have to leave it off. Oxford commas forever!

  22. Angie Wierzbicki

    Although I’m not a stickler on the Oxford Comma, either way, I completely agree with you on the one-space after periods proclamation. I “literally” had a former E.D. add a space after each sentence of mine in any document I wrote that she proofread to get the desired two space effect she learned before computers. Don’t get me started!!

  23. Chris Michael

    I’m a die-hard Oxford comma defender, but — like lipstick on your teeth — I feel like I need to lean in and go, “Pssst, you botched the comma in your opening instance of direct address…”

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Chris. I think this may be an instance of stylistic differences. I think salutations like “hi” and “hey” are more like “dear.” That’s why it’s so jarring to see “Hi, Chris” as a salutation in an email. So I prefer “Hi everyone” versus “Hi, everyone.”

      1. Chris Michael

        I think you hit the nail on the head. Most people nowadays read “dear” like a an actual greeting and not an adjective. “Dear mother, dearest father.” It’s become the punctuation equivalent of “for all intensive purposes”: so close, but more a product of mass emulation than formal education.

        (Believe me, I already know on the losing side of this – and in 10 more years, the texting kids will all be the senior editors at all the bedrock publishers and Strunk & White will get a fresh coat of paint. I just mention it here because it, you know, a grammar post…) (Nice post, btw.)

  24. Sheryl Gillilan

    Amen brother! I am NOT part of the let’s-delete-most-commas-because-they-slow-us-down movement, let alone an advocate of deleting the OC. Commas are a lovely pause in our too-rushed world, and I, for one, intend to be a member of the “slow punctuation” movement for a long time to come.

    On a different note, I hate the word “relateable.” Could you please do a column on the merits of not using that word — or perhaps you are in the pro category?

  25. Michael

    In addition to the (wow) really unnecessary use of all caps in the third paragraph of this post, the end of your second paragraph is really where you lost me. See the following:

    The Oxford Comma, or serial comma, is the last comma in a sentence like this: “Please get hummus, broccoli, baby carrots, and pita chips for the finance meeting.” It used when listing out a bunch of things, and always comes before the word “and” or “or.”

    Is it just me, or shouldn’t a writer critiquing grammar pay lots and lots of attention to their own? Meaning, just maybe, they might write: [It’s] used when listing out… vs. [It] used when..

    Just a thought, really.

    1. Vu Le

      Well, thanks for the feedback, Michael. I thought I had fixed that, but apparently not. It is now fixed 🙂 This is what happens when you publish blog posts at 1am after watching Daredevil Season 2 on Netflix.

  26. Jordan

    I was very behind on my e-mail and didn’t read this until today, but I cannot tell you how happy it made me to see that this, of all possible subjects, was the one covered on April 4th, my birthday. A gift to me, a lover of precise language and punctuation. Thanks, Vu, I love this blog.

  27. NSK

    But what if it were: “I look up to my board co-chair, Bill Gates, and Tina Fey.” Now it’s the Oxford comma causing confusion. I only use extra commas when they are needed for the sake of clarification.

  28. Alicia

    Any advice on the proper implementation of commas in sentences that substitute the “&” for “and” (very commonly found on promotional materials)? Example: “Music, Food & Unicorns” OR “Music, Food, & Unicorns”?
    P.S. Viva the Oxford comma!

  29. DinaClare

    I’m a fan of the Oxford comma, but here in Australia it’s more common *not* to use it. That annoys the crap out of me…

  30. Dawn Petty Weber

    I am a fervent believer in the OC, to the point of questioning my professional and personal relationships with nonbelievers. I had a proofreader/friend once that put those little squiggle delete marks over all the OCs in a document and I just about came unglued on her: “Don’t you be touching my commas, girl.”

  31. Sarah P-s

    Ah, the double space. I just can’t do without it! But I learned in grad school a few years back that my early 90’s HS English teacher set me up for a future of double spaces in a one space world. But then I learned about the “find and replace” button on Word and my problem was solved. Write normally and then find all the double spaces and replace with one space. Success!

  32. linkapaulinka

    Just came across this one. Vu, please write a piece on the double space too. Pretty please! That is, of course, if you agree that we should get rid of it 😉

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