Origin of the Oxford comma

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Photo by Duncan Hull @ Flickr.

The Oxford comma baffles, enrages, and delights people. But where did it come from? Who invented it? Why does it refer to a famous English university? Let’s look at the history of the Oxford comma.

This funky punctuation feature, also known as the Harvard or serial comma, has become a trendy topic. It continues to inspire debates, various blog posts, tweets, infographics, pop songs, and who knows what else. If you haven’t yet learned what it is, the video below will give you a quick explanation.

I personally like to use the Oxford comma in any kind of academic and serious English writing, because it clarifies meaning when listing things. Although what complicates matter for me is that I regularly write in more than one language, and each language has different rules for punctuation. So while using it in English is good, it has started to creep into my Finnish texts as well, which can be a bad thing. But today instead of talking about its usage, I want to look at its history.

Recently I started wondering when and how the Oxford comma originated. I was rather surprised when none of the online blog posts and sources explained in detail how the comma was invented. Most places simply state something similar to what OxfordDictionaries.com says :

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

Yes, yes, but when did the Oxford University Press start using it? Who invented it? Or who made the decision that it should be included in the house style? As you might know, the OUP uses strict style guides, like Hart’s Rules.

With terminological issues it’s usually wise to begin with checking ‘the definite record of the English language’ – the Oxford English Dictionary. In a sub-section to “Oxford” this mighty tome offers us a definition of the comma, but at first glance doesn’t explain its origin:

Oxford comma n. [after the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press] a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items.

After the definition OED lists recorded usages of the term, and – aha! – that contains much more historical information than the actual entry. According to OED, the first recorded use of the term was in Peter H. Sutcliffe’s 1978 book The Oxford University Press: An informal history. (Side note: Not to criticise the OED, but it seems a bit incredible that the first ever usage of the term in print would be so late. Especially as the text seems to refer to the term as something commonly known.)

1978   P. SUTCLIFFE Oxf. Univ. Press iv. i. 114   It was [F. H.] Collins who invented the ‘Oxford comma’, for which he obtained support from Herbert Spencer.

Now we are getting closer. So Sutcliffe attributes the comma to F.H. Collins (1857–1910). But when was this? And why? Let’s dig up Sutcliffe’s book. Actually it’s rather fascinating to read because it describes how the style guides of OUP came about about a hundred years ago. Sutcliffe explains that the ‘two of the most influential books ever published by the Press’ – Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford and Collins’s Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary – both emerged slowly and gradually as small internal booklets and rule collections. (By the way, Hart’s Rules is still in print, the latest edition is from 2014.)

While the OUP has a reputation as a stern authority, both of these books actually contained idiosyncrasies and fairly arbitrary decisions on punctuation, capitalisation, spelling and so on. Many of what today are considered classical features of ‘Oxford English’ were decided in these books. For example, Collins is responsible for the usage of ‘-ize’ endings instead of ‘-ise’. According to Sutcliffe, Collins thought that ‘it was absurd to have the letter [z] in the alphabet and not to use it where phonetically appropriate’.

The Oxford Comma was a similar decision made by Collins. I’m not sure if the rule was already contained in the earliest booklet-versions of his Dictionary, which had existed since 1893. But I believe the rule was recorded at least when the book was properly published in 1905. Collins wrote a sub-entry for and called “and” or “, and”. In this he relied on the authority of the famous Victorian philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer:

“and” or “, and” 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 very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought 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.”

Origin of the "Oxford comma". from page 12 in Collins, F.H. (1912/1905) Authors’ & Printers’ Dictionary. 4th edition. Henry Frowde, London.You can look up the original entry in the digitised copy of the 4th edition from 1912, which is available at the Internet Archive. The entry is on page 12 (page 25 in the pdf file). If that is too much effort, just click on the image on the right to see the entry.

However, this still does not give us a definite answer to who invented this practice. As one can see in the quote shown above, Sutcliffe attributes the invention to Collins, who then sought support for it from Spencer. (According to Sutcliffe, the same happened with the ‘-ize’ vs. ‘-ise’ endings.) On the other hand, looking at the original Dictionary entry, Collins seems to give the credit to Spencer. Of course, it is also possible the custom of using the serial comma was already common by the time both Collins and Spencer adopted it. It would be fun to know more details on the matter, but I guess that would involve diving into the correspondence between these gentlemen – if that has even survived to this day. But I suppose Sutcliffe is right in the sense that even if Collins didn’t start the practice, he did in a way invent ‘the Oxford comma’, with his decision to include the rule in his book.

5 thoughts on “Origin of the Oxford comma”

  1. The clip is inaccurate.  In the example provided,  ”I invited the acrobats, President Obama and the Queen of England  to a party”, the commentary denotes the lack of the Oxford coma gives the impression the President and Queen are acrobats. Incorrect.  In order for such assumption to be made, there would have to be two commas.   “I invited the acrobats, President Obama and the Queen of England, to the party”.  If a second comma appeared, it would create an appositive and indeed the President and Queen would be construed as acrobats. Without the second comma, no association between the guests and their profession is established.   This is a common error, but to see it in a video about punctuation is chilling. 

  2. Good point Chris! I’ve noticed that many of these videos simplify the idea of the Oxford Comma too much. Like it would just be about adding more commas to all sentences. In my non-grammarian personal opinion I think the importance of the Oxford comma is also contextual. There are cases where you can leave the comma out, but people will still understand you because of the context. A bit like spoken language contains ambiguities but we are pretty good at getting the intended meanings right, as The Ling Space explains.

  3. The only reason we have commas is to denote a short pause. Good punctuation reflects good speech patterns. It is that simple.

  4. I was just curious about the ‘short pause’ theory which is so common in school grammar books or that is how teachers usually teach. I still don’t understand how long is this short pause and how long do we have to pause to make it long.

    In case it’s too blurry, I think it is better to take a grammatical approach, check the way CMOS explains it.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Now we are once again out of my expertise area as I’m not a linguist. But here is my opinion on things.

      I agree with the basic idea that commas can denote pauses. However, there are no such things as “good speech patterns”. Whatever language you learn as a child is your natural language. And there is nothing wrong with your natural language. Ever.

      Writing is only a way to represent spoken natural language. And grammar is only a way to describe rules which already exist in language. People often get this wrong, and think that spoken language should follow grammar books.

      So, I would say that you don’t have to worry about the length of the pause. If there is a pause in your speech, you can mark it with a comma in writing. (This is, of course, a simplification. And doesn’t apply in all languages.)

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