Origin of the Oxford comma

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.