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History of the Oxford Comma

Updated on July 24, 2020
Source

First off, What is a Comma?

Have you ever wondered where the comma came from? How it began its journey in writing? Who is the first person in the world to ever use a comma? The first comma ever written down in a story was in 2100 B.C. Do you think our ancestors bothered much using punctuation? What makes the comma so special and so useful to use?

There are many names a comma goes by: Oxford comma, Harvard comma, or even the serial comma. The definition is piece of punctuation that is used before a conjunction, to separate items, or to create a pause within the sentence. The comma has been used to add flare to style, or not using the comma sends a clear message to the reader as well. So, what is a comma really?

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What are the Oxford Comma Origins?

The word derives from a Greek word “Koptein” meaning to cut. In a sense, commas do cut sentences into clauses and fragments.

As to how it was actually used was by the 15th Century Printer Aldus Manutius. The fore father of paperbacks. He revolutionized the printing world by evolving the way books were printed, so they could be mass produced and were easier to handle and sell. You can read more here if you are interested in learning how he changed printing, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/arts/design/a-grolier-club-tribute-to-the-printer-aldus-manutius.html.

He used the comma very much like we do now as a way to separate things, however, the comma did not have a name until roughly the 20th Century. This name is attributed to Horace Hart, the printer manager of Oxford University Press. He wrote Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers as a style guide to standardized a part of the Press coming from the university. This book is still being produced and you can view it here: https://www.amazon.com/Harts-Compositors-Readers-University-Oxford/dp/019212983X. He thought of the comma as a way to also separate items, and was needed to make things clearer. Technically the name is truly credited to Peter Sutcliff as he referred it as the Oxford Comma when he wrote his book. But then Sutcliff really gave the claim to F. Howard Collins when he wrote his book in 1912, which you can view here: https://www.amazon.com/Author-Printer-Correctors-Compositors-Abbreviations/dp/1527762742.

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Why is it so important?

The Oxford comma is important because it is there as a tool to help writers make their sentences clear and understandable. To eliminate any confusion and to help prove their point within a sentence, to help point or refer to a subject, and to help add a little elegance to the structure of writing.

Many people use commas incorrectly, may even litter their writing with them when they are not needed. Commas exist to help keep "like things to like things" within a sentence.

Not only that, but punctuation used correctly, like the comma can give your writing a sense of authority.

Should you use the Oxford Comma, when, where, and why?

  • The most strategic way to use a comma is the minimalist way. These little marks carry very large power. When you use them when they have the most impact--that is when they have the most value and hold the most weight.
  • First, observe the way published writers use grammer (e.g. Stephen King, Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling).
  • Stephen King, for example, uses many commas, dashes, full-stops in his writing. He also most never goes without a sentence without a comma. Don't believe me? If you don't own a book written by him, next time at the book, crack one open and read the first page. How many commas did he use on the first page alone? In his memoir, on the first page, he uses 11 commas. J.K. Rowling, the first book of Harry Potter, The Sorcerer's Stone, there are also 11 commas.
  • You should only be using commas to establish understanding, and/or establishing a particular meaning. The comma ensures the meaning you intended is not misunderstood.
  • There also are these reasons too:
      • They can add a touch of elegance
      • Can add rhythm
      • Can add a beat
      • Can give a push into a new idea
      • Adds comprehension
      • Conventional to use with conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, etc.)
      • Extend a thought to another by following before and after the comma
      • Can link two things together
      • To insert a point

Some styles does not use commas

In some styles, commas don’t exist like Associated Press style. They get rid of the common comma and only use it when there is a list of things, but always will eliminate the last comma in the sentence.

Ex. John loved singing, dancing and playing the guitar.

Conclusion

The history of the comma started with publishers paving the way of clarity with a comma. Some people and styles who believe in the Oxford comma, they use it all the time, and will not release it from their fingers until they are cold. Other styles and people prefer to cast away the comma. The way of the comma will constantly evolve just as it had a humble beginning.


Let me know if you have any comments or questions about the 'holy comma or not so holy comma'.

© 2020 Nicole McConnell

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    • Ankita B profile image

      Ankita B 

      12 months ago

      Interesting article. I really liked how you have organised the content. Thank you for sharing.

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