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.


Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity. 

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Oh, and support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB swag.