That Penultimate-Minded, War-Inducing, Trendy Punctuation Mark, The Oxford Comma Begs the Question, “Why so serious?”

The Oxford comma has many names, such as serial comma, series comma and the terminal comma.

Terminal. Serial. These words conjure grave images in my mind and they are of the utmost serious kind.

And for both pro- or anti-Oxford comma camps, it is a serious matter, indeed. 🙂

You may have noticed that I deliberately left the Oxford comma out in the first sentence. Please, don’t be alarmed. Though I like using the Oxford comma, I don’t always use it, (oftentimes I may have forgotten to 😳 ) but I will forever and always use it when it is required. That’s why revising, editing, and having another pair of eyes to assist is so important.

The Oxford Dictionary states that this punctuation mark is actually optional and can be used for meaning clarification:

This blog post’s featured image nods to the origin of the Oxford comma’s name, origin, and is substantiated by the above screenshot. While researching for this post, I found it strange that the pro-Oxford comma wars are common in the USA, and ironically not in the UK. As claimed by Mental Floss author Arika Okrent, “anti-Oxford comma reigns”:

As an adolescent, I struggled with commas. Heck, at times I still do. I just love them!

I love the way the comma conjures and elicits pauses in between descriptive lists. It tickles me to see its wiggly little tadpole-like form, and the staccato sound it creates fills me with joy! So, it’s not surprising that my essays were marked down because of my liberal usage of these literary speedbumps. Even as I’m writing now, I often fear that I am using these cuties too much or not enough. Now, there are times when I deliberately overuse commas for comedic effect and even humorous-tinged “ranting” moments. Hyperbole is good for the soul and the mind.

Of course my research led me down rabbit hole tangents that had me wondering about the weird and wonderful punctuation habits of authors that rebelled against traditional conventions. In a Qwiklit post by May Huang, you can read about the Top 10 Authors Who Ignored the Basic Rules of Punctuation. As a bonus, the comments section contributes additional authors to the list! I find the quirky punctuation habits of famous authors enlightening and entertaining, so as I researched for this post, I learned that punctuation is not only powerful, but as pretty as a painting.


For example, Between the Words executed this truth beautifully by stripping public domain literature down to their punctuation alone.

Wow. Not sure what that looks like? Here’s an example of a wordless, literally visual representation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

No two writing voices will be alike, due to many variables like punctuation. And that’s great! On Medium, Adam J. Calhoun was inspired by Between the Words’ work. He took nine novels and distilled them to only their punctuation to visually show what a difference punctuation usage makes. It is a matter of style:

What do you notice? What pops off the page at you? Which novel utilizes more dialogue? Which novel seems more simplified?

Calhoun also transformed the punctuation marks into heatmaps, which creates a more sophisticated and aesthetically appealing representation of these authors’ use of punctuation and style:

Essentially, punctuation is a part of an author’s style. Likewise, the Oxford comma is a part of an author’s style. That’s why a lot of writers who defend and promote its usage react passionately when it is not used. Yet, on the flipside, not using it is also a matter of style.

As writers, we have the responsibility to not only find our unique voice, but to also cultivate it and if you choose to share it with the rest of the world? A little pruning and/or fertilizer may be required. 🙂

Happy Writing! 🙂

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