Poll: Should AP change its style and require the Oxford comma?

Roy Peter Clark’s argument that AP should change its style and adopt the Oxford comma has received a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter today.

Responses to the heated debate over whether journalists should use the serial comma (remember this classic Onion story about grammarian gang wars?) ranged from “yes, yes, and yes” to “no, no and no”:

Last week FiveThirtyEight found that 57 percent of survey respondents were pro-Oxford comma. Those who rated their grammar skills highly were more likely to prefer it.

So we thought we’d ask Poynter readers for their input in a poll, too. Do we journalists “have it wrong,” as Roy argues? Or would you prefer AP keep things as they are and refrain from making another earthshattering change to its Stylebook?

We’ll post the results tomorrow.


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  • F. Armsytong Green

    “How to punctuate . . . enumerations is argued with more heat than is called forth by any other rhetorical problem except the split infinitive. Leaving aside a few poets and a handful of crotcheteers who want to abolish all punctuation, everybody favors the use of commas between all members of to the last two; but there the shooting begins. A large body of opinion that includes nearly all newspapers insists on a, b and c—that is, they omit the last comma. A smaller body, numbering many of the most respectable book publishers, sticks to a, b, and c; they demand a comma before the cadence signaled by and, or, or but. Schools that teach composition are divided; so is the counsel of rhetorics, manuals, and teachers of freshman English; so is the practice of authors, whose printed works tell nothing of their preference. Readers will have noticed that this book [Modern American Usage) retains
    the closing comma—the a, b, and c formula.
    "A widely parroted dictum is supposed to settle the issue: if you have the conjunction, you don’t need the comma. That is bad reasoning or no reasoning at all. A conjunction is a connective device, as its name announces; whereas a mark of punctuation is nothing if not separative. To insist that the first perform the duty of the second is rather like prescribing sand in the bearings. Whatever is to be said for punctuating a, b and c (i.e. without a comma before and), it is not that the and replaces the missing mark. The comma, when present, separates b from c; the and joins c and b and (just as much) a—a material point commonly overlooked. It is implicit in the standard form of a series that when you write red, white, and blue you mean red and white and blue—three equal terms. The form itself is a convention for making the conjunction work between a and b though it is present only between b and c; one conjunction at the end serves for all the intervals.
    "What, then, are the arguments for omitting the last comma? Only one is cogent—the
    saving of space. In the narrow width of a newspaper column this saving counts for more than elsewhere, which is why the omission is so nearly universal in journalism. But here or anywhere one must question whether the advantage outweighs the confusion caused by the omission." --Modern American Usage: A Guide, Wilson Follett, Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun

    "But it’s [the question of inclusion of the serial comma] easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.” –Garner’s Modern American Usage

  • Maria Puente

    No, no and no. Just because so many British journalists have invaded American journalism doesn’t mean we have to adopt their style, grammar and punctuation peculiarities. What’s next? Quote marks inside the period (excuse me, FULL STOP)? Labor spelled with an unnecessary U? Calling it ZED instead of Z? Spell-check is already inadequate to its task; let’s not confuse it further. Besides, it just looks wrong. AP, stand fast!

  • Ahleen

    I don’t overthink it; I’m thinking about it correctly and without a lot of effort, so don’t worry. And I generally agree with you. Just didn’t agree with “bacon, and eggs”. No need for heavens, Bill.

  • billmarvel

    Context mother shows up at daughter’s house with certain items. Some are more significant than others and will have different roles to play. This is no random list of just stuff. And that’s my point to Joseph Finn. A series is not just a list.

  • billmarvel

    Oh,for heavens sakes, Ahleen. Or heaven’s sake.Or whatever. You’re overthinking this. My position is that the Oxford comma is a useful and sometimes necessary tool for the conscientiuous writer.

  • Egg Man

    First, AP should start lowercasing internet. No need to cap it anymore. yes or no? Do a survey on that, Poynter and Mr Clark!

  • Jacob Boyer

    I’m curious as to the context, just because I’m an editing nerd.

  • Ahleen

    In your last sentence here I could not disagree more with the use of the comma; it just looks misplaced and unnecessary (because you’re going to get bacon AND eggs, right (with the comma I’m waiting for the eggs to do some crazy shit)?).

    But in your challenge to Joseph (and Jacob) I would absoulutely agree with the use of the comma (because she doesn’t want to bring a photo with both her grandmother and good kitchen knives in it, obviously). And I don’t think it slows down the reading, like your last sentence does. Meaning I concur with what OriginalShrub said a couple of posts up.

  • John McClelland

    This is not worth getting all worked up over, but it is worth a bit of thought before knee-jerking either way. Recognizing the argument about smooth flow of quickly read copy, I still think the time lost teaching and enforcing the AP rule probably exceeds by several orders of magnitude the time and appreciation that would be lost in putting the serial comma there more consistently. The teletype-stroke-saver AP rule is more burdensome to teach than to do, too.

  • Klint Lowry

    I’I almost entirely agree, except I’ve often wondered just how terribly an extra comma slows down one’s reading – a billionth of a second, maybe?

  • billmarvel

    Unfortunately, Jacob, the order in which items are revealed in that series is not arbitrary, but reveals something of the character of the “she” involved. Each item has a role to play and falls into the series where it does because of that role. I know; I’m editing the piece.
    My larger point is one cannot always go about reconstructing a series just to avoid the serial comma. A sentence is not an equation aNd meaning is not always that simple.
    Now, if you will excuse me, I am headed to the grocery store to buy orange juice, milk, broccoli, bacon, and eggs.

  • http://rtberner.blogspot.com/ R Thomas Berner

    I don’t think I could handle requiring the Oxford comma after the AP said it would accept over for more than. One change a year, please.

  • http://onlinedoragames.in/ Dorothy dora

    Should AP change its style and require the Oxford comma? my ans is yes. simpley :)
    dora games

  • OriginalShrub

    Can we get past this all-or-nothing debate? The Oxford comma usually inhibits the pace of reading for no good reason, but there are times when using it makes sense. Reporters and copy desks have long taken a case-by-case approach — omit the Oxford comma in most situations, deploy it when needed to avoid confusion. That flexibility has served us well for many years.

  • Jacob Boyer

    She’d packed her beloved juicer, her favorite bed linen, the good kitchen knives and a photo of her grandmother.

    Give me something harder.

  • billmarvel

    Fine, Joseph. Rewrite this sentence: She’d packed her beloved juicer, her favourite bed linen, a photo of her grandmother, and the good kitchen knives.

  • Joseph Finn

    Of course not. If a sentence is so sloppy and list-laden as to require a serial comma then it should just be re-written to avoid the necessity.

  • billmarvel

    Maybe the word “Oxford” is what’s putting people off, journalists generally being against anything that smacks of elitism or showy intellectualism. But there are times when that comma absolutely must be there for the sentence to be understood. This is not about schoolmarm “correctness,” but about communicating accurately.