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AP Style and the Oxford Comma

For most people these days, grammar is nothing more than the structure required to make any bit of writing coherent to another adult who speaks the same language. That is, “I goes to the store,” is wrong, and “I goed to the store,” is even more wrong, but nothing else much matters. To such people, whether or not those commas in that sentence go inside or outside of the quotes is irrelevant.

In fact, it seems as if all of punctuation, barring an ending period or question mark, or when in doubt, an EXCLAMATION POINT, has become largely moot to anyone not writing for publication. This is doubly true in a world of electronic correspondence where faster and shorter is better and email is assumed to be informal.  This fact has me sheepishly add a phrase to the automatic signature of every non-computer email device I use saying, “Sent from my mobile phone,” as a mea culpa to any typos or non-fully formed sentences. The implication being that the message would have been in perfect grammar, and had fully formed sentences, if sent from a device where I could touch-type and therefore have the time and ability to do so.

However, as a professional writer, grammar matters to me. Just as a doctor watching a TV show must control themselves to avoid a tirade about inaccuracy, so too must a writer reading other’s emails and messages control themselves to avoid constantly lecturing about grammar.

I’ve been doing this writing thing long enough to have it mostly under control. However, that all comes undone when someone questions my grammar in something I wrote, no matter how informal.

No. I did NOT forget that last comma.

AP Style Does Not Use Serial or Oxford Commas

I’ve complained before about AP Style being out of step with the rest of the world. One of my recent tirades about being the only person I know thanks to the demands of the still brings in emails and comments on a regular basis.

There are two things you should as a writer. First, that the most commonly requested style or format of an online writer is AP Style. Second, AP Style is technically for “media” writing, or journalism.

That means that as a professional online writer, you will conform your writing to AP Style most of the time. It also means that your writing will be suitable for publication in a newspaper or magazine. In 99 out of 100 cases, this will be completely and utterly irrelevant. In fact, it will be unnoticeable to just about everyone. However, sooner or later someone will wonder why you capitalize Internet. And, sooner or later, someone will think you are missing a comma.

Commas are often poorly used in writing. Often, they are included where they don’t belong, and just as often, they are left out where they do belong. Both are grammatical punctuation topics you should swallow hard and ignore with all but other professional writers lest you beat your head against the wall while others tell you to get over it.

However, one place commas still are valued, and correctly used, by many is in separating lists within a sentence. For example, “When he went to the store he looked for carrots, broccoli, sandwiches and propane.”

Using commas in this sentence is common and welcome. While you might eventually figure out that there was a list in that sentence even without commas, it wouldn’t make much sense until you did.

Now, you may, or may not, have noticed that in my example sentence there is no comma before the and in that list. This is the AP Stylebook’s fault.

That final comma before the and in a list is called an Oxford comma, or serial comma. Oxford style requires the use of the comma to avoid confusion, hence the name Oxford comma. (It is also required by the Chicago Manual of Style and MLA Style.)

If you prefer a non-branded term, then serial comma ascribes the same comma usage to no one in particular. However, the AP Style rule is that you do not include that final comma unless it’s “necessary.” So, if there is no real concern for the reader of that sentence to somehow illogically group sandwiches and propane, then the comma is omitted.

There is no logical reason to leave out that final comma since it cannot hurt the clarity of a sentence even if not specifically necessary. That a punctuation exists that can only clarify writing and then its usage is forbidden is nonsensical. The only explanation for the Associated Press to continue this charade is consistency. The guide is 60 years old, and when they first started publishing it, every character cost money to print. If there was any way to eliminate one it was worth it. So, the serial, or Oxford comma, was eliminated and money was saved without anyone being able to complain about it being wrong. Since this reasoning is obviously no longer relevant, the day will come with the AP Stylebook decides that function is more important than tradition, and everyone, everywhere, will require the serial comma.

Until that day, I will have to tolerate the fact that, having trained myself to use the AP Style without thinking in hundreds or thousands of articles requiring the same, there will inevitably be someone out there who upon reading some of my work will helpfully point out that I “forgot” that last comma in my list. And, I will grit my teeth and say thank you, or launch into an explanation about why I’m supposed to write that way even though it makes no sense. Either way, it won’t really matter to since those helpful types don’t actually care about grammar all that much anyway

It’s 2017, Associated Press. That comma doesn’t cost anyone any money anymore. It’s time to get with the times.

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