Did Oxford Drop the Oxford Comma?

The serial comma kerfuffle

Mignon Fogarty,
July 8, 2011
Episode #283

Page 2 of 2

Who Invented the Oxford Comma?

The first style book to recommend using the serial comma came out in 1905 in England, and Strunk’s first edition of The Elements of Style, which came out a few years later in America, in 1918, also recommended the serial comma.

The 1905 book credited with establishing the serial comma rule is Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists by Francis Howard Collins, and it appears that Collins and his famous biologist/philosopher friend Herbert Spencer hashed out idea of the serial comma in a personal correspondence that Collins later quoted in his book. Collins and Spencer did not give it the name serial comma or Oxford comma, instead, Collins addressed the point in an entry about the word “and” with the heading "and” or “, and.” Here’s what that entry says:

“The late Herbert Spencer allowed me to quote from his letter: -- ‘whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green” -- I feel very decidedly in favor of the first. To me, the comma is of value in marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of a component of elements are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case,  inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.’” (See the manuscript scan at Google Books.)

An interesting side note is that Spencer is also credited with coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

As far as we know, that’s the origin of serial comma rule. It originally had to do with giving each element equal weight rather than being valued for adding clarity to lists. Either way, I’m glad the Oxford University Press is still using it.

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of 101 MISUSED WORDS YOU'LL NEVER CONFUSE AGAIN. Buy it today.

Image: Oxford University Press, M Stone at Wikimedia. CC BY 3.0 Unported.


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