AP style, the oxford comma, and communication

It is important to note that the AP Style guide is just that: A guide. No newspaper is going to be shut down because they added an Oxford comma in a sentence or wrote a date incorrectly.  (Frederik Rubensson/Flickr, Creative Commons)

It is important to note that the AP Style guide is just that: A guide. No newspaper is going to be shut down because they added an Oxford comma in a sentence or wrote a date incorrectly. (Frederik Rubensson/Flickr, Creative Commons)

A key goal of any newspaper should be communication. There is a reason writers stray from terms that may be unfamiliar to the common reader and attempt to make the ideas they present straightforward. Capably conveying information is a critical component of journalism. It would stand to reason that the grammatical style employed by newspapers would reflect this mission.

Journalistic writing is largely governed by the rules of Associated Press (AP) style. This format helps ensure uniformity among newspapers across the country, providing guidelines for publications in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and language usage. There are rules for pretty much everything, including the formatting of addresses, dates, and technological terms. However, there are clear areas where AP style fails in its goal to facilitate consistency, clarity, accuracy, and brevity. One of these is its neglection of the Oxford comma. 

Broadly speaking, the Oxford comma is the final comma in a list of things, usually located before the “and” in the sentence. On its face this wouldn’t seem too significant. After all, there’s not really a difference between getting some bread, milk, and eggs versus bread, milk and eggs. However, there are situations where there are important differences in meaning when an Oxford comma is used.  

Take the following sentence: I attended a concert with my best friend, a doctor and professional detective. The meaning of this expression is unclear. On one hand, the speaker could be saying that their best friend is both a doctor and professional detective. However, they could also be claiming that they attended a concert with three distinct people: their best friend, a doctor, and a professional detective. In this example it is clear that the Oxford comma provides needed clarification.  

While the Oxford comma obviously serves an important purpose, many journalistic publications rigidly follow AP style and do not allow their writers to make use of it. This can force journalists to phrase ideas differently than they would wish to avoid violating the guide. Other writers may have their content changed by copy editors against their will. It’s unlikely, but there is always a chance that their adjustments could change the meaning of their article. All it would take to avoid issues like this would be to allow journalists to use the Oxford comma at their own discretion. 

In the novel “1984,” one of the concepts presented is the idea that thought can be constrained by language. One of the characters postulates that by ridding the language of the correct words they can effectively present the conception of undesirable thoughts, let alone their spread. While nothing this insidious is at play with AP Style, this example nevertheless reinforces the importance of being able to adequately express oneself and to convey information to others. It is clear that the Oxford comma is an important tool for this purpose. Either AP Style must change to meet the needs of language, or newspapers should exercise leniency with its use in the name of communication.  

It is important to note that the AP Style guide is just that: A guide. No newspaper is going to be shut down because they added an Oxford comma in a sentence or wrote a date incorrectly. Publications should be able to tailor their style guides based on their needs. The New York Times is one example of an institution that has its own guide, although it is based on preexisting ones. As John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has written, the issue is the tendency of some journalists to treat the AP style rules as if they were the “universal arbiter of language.” The rules are only advisory, and following it slavishly is not healthy. One can only hope that more publications avoid a dogmatic following of any specific style guide. Instead, some degree of variability is necessary for adequate and efficient communication. 


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.