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Who Cares About an Oxford Comma?

The Oxford comma has been the subject of a song by Vampire Weekend, a factor in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, and the fodder for many Internet memes. Why do many people feel so strongly about this seemingly minor American English grammatical standard? When consulting style guides, most favor the Oxford comma. This includes the APA, Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Manual, and the one on my shelf, Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Even Uncle Sam (the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual) supports it. Against the wave is the Associated Press Stylebook. Maybe some cling to the adage, “when in doubt, leave it out.” Maybe it is the extra space taken. For Oxford comma fans, of whom I am one, it is a matter of clarity.

What is an Oxford comma? The Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is a comma inserted immediately before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. For example: My favorite vegetables are spinach, mushrooms, and yams. In that case, the Oxford comma is placed after “mushrooms.”

Why is it important?

This comma provides clarity. It also is consistent with the spoken word. The comma represents a natural pause. It also gives equal weight to each item in the series. Omission of the comma can also change the meaning of the words. In the following example, the meaning could be misinterpreted. I enjoy camping with my sisters, Mark and John. Unless the writer’s sisters are named, Mark and John, this sentence is incorrect.

Be consistent.

Whichever stance you take on the Oxford comma, be consistent. Either consistently use the Oxford or don’t use it. When you mix your style, it can lead to ambiguity. Also, in the case of a persnickety resume reader, one way or the other can seem to be an error. It is important to embrace a style so your documents have a comfortable flow.

While most readers of your resume may not care about an Oxford comma, there are some that will. When creating a resume, remember that you are competing for an interview. Maybe nine out of ten will not care about the lack of a sophisticated format and the level of writing. Why risk that one reader will delete your resume based on punctuation or other non-standard formatting choices.

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