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Resolved: The Oxford comma should be mandatory.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 5/11/2015 Category: Education
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,773 times Debate No: 75082
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (30)
Votes (1)




Hello! I hereby challenge ButterCatX to a debate on the Oxford comma.

Full resolution

Resolved: The Oxford comma should be mandatory.

Oxford comma: The comma used between the penultimate and the ultimate items of a list, as in the example apples, bananas, and oranges.
Mandatory: Required in written English.

1. Debate structure:
R1: Acceptance
R2 and R3: Arguments and rebuttals
R3 and R4: Rebuttals and conclusion
2. No trolling, no kritiks, semantics allowed
3. BOP is shared. I must prove that the Oxford comma can be omitted in most situations, while Con must prove that it should be mandatory in most situations.
4. I will be happy to alter the rules if needed, but ButterCatX must inform me before the beginning of the next round.


I accept and we are going with the first structure and the revision that we must both prove that our side is right in most instances.

Most = Majority/over fifty percent
Debate Round No. 1


I thank ButterCat for accepting my debate challenge. I will now present my opening arguments.

C1) Descriptivism

The premise used in this argument is that if a language feature is used extensively in formal written communication, then it can be used. The comma is an fundamental part of punctuation, which is an essential element of orthography, which in turn is an essential part of language. Language is not static; it is ever-changing, and resistance to linguistic change is a futile attempt, which we can see from the fact that words such as presidential, once regarded as unacceptable horrors, are now prevalent. The rules that govern it should be based on (or based off!) descriptions of actual discourse. Thus to determine the validity of the Oxford comma, one needs to look no further than corpus statistics.

According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the string '[Noun], [Noun], and [Noun]' appears 2995 times in the corpus, while '[Noun], [Noun] and [Noun]' appears 3361 times. (Apologies for the small text; I had to retain parts of the results to prove that I did not tamper with the screenshots.)

With Oxford comma:

Without Oxford comma:

In the British National Corpus, the results were even more overwhelming. There are 276 results with the Oxford comma, and 1540 without:

With Oxford comma:

Without Oxford comma:

Thus in the eye of the descriptivist, the lack of an Oxford comma is valid, and there is no reason to make the use of the comma mandatory.

C2) Prosody
The premise used in this argument is that punctuation should be based on prosody. We have all been taught at an early age that a comma is a 'short pause', a full stop is a 'long pause', and a semicolon a 'medium pause'. While these rules of thumb may not be foolproof, they should serve as a general guide to the correspondence between punctuation and juncture, which, after all, is known as 'oral punctuation'. Therefore, rules of punctuation ought to be based on descriptions of juncture in actual oral discourse.

I will use two samples. The first is the phrase Men, Women and Children in this video: (At 0:03)

The second is the phrase hook, line and sinker from this video: (At 0:37)

I have produced their sound waves using Audacity, and transcribed both phrases into IPA using narrow transcriptions and open juncture. I have tried to ensure that my IPA symbols match up with the corresponding parts in the sound waves. (The second syllable of children was intentionally left out as unnecesary.)

As we can see from these sound waves, the pauses between the first and second items are long, as indicated by the plus signs. The pauses between the second items and the word and are relatively short, indicated by the lack of a plus sign and, in the case of the second sample, the lack of a space. Furthermore, I have observed that the juncture boundary between line and and was extremely thin; one could go as far as to describe it as a resyllabification similar to the French liaison, for the coda of line sounded like the onset of and.

Therefore, whereas a comma is called for before the penultimate item, there is no need to insert a comma between the penultimate item and and.

C3) Practicality
This argument is written under the premise that in the absence of evidence that one orthographic form is better than the other, the easier one should prevail. Firstly, the Oxford comma is not used in most languages other than English, which include French (3), Danish (4), Dutch (5) Finnish (6), German (7), Greek (8), Hebrew (9), Hungarian (10), Italian (11), Norwegian (12), Romanian (13), Russian (14), Spanish (15), Swedish (16) and of course Chinese (17). Second-language learners whose native languages are these languages will find it useful to omit the Oxford comma unless necessary.

Moreover, it is not used in English itself when the list has only two items: black and white, trial and error. Thus the Oxford comma will cause confusion in learners.

C4) Readability
'There are certain places where for the sake of clarity and good form the presence of a comma is obligatory, but on the other hand a too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader.' This was written in the 1937 New York Times style guide and still rings true (1), and is supported by other publications like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. (2) As a comma indicates a pause, the comma will incite in the reader a moment of hesitancy, slowing down the pace of reading. As the additional pause is not present in speech (as shown in C1), this will further confuse the reader. Thus a comma is, in situations where it does not induce ambiguity, needless clutter.

(17) See example 2.4
Note: 4-16 cited by Wikipedia.


Thank you con for starting with such a great debate.

Opening Argument
The oxford comma is very useful in most cases. The oxford comma can help seperate ideas in sentences, i.e. I brought the Clowns, Bob, and George. In that example you are clearly saying that you are bringing three seperate entities (Bob, George, and some clowns)
While if you exclude the oxford comma you could only be bringing two individuals, i.e. I brought the Clowns, Bob and George. In that sentence you could be bringing only Bob and George and would confuse anyone planning this party. This is just one example of places where the oxford comma is required.

While I have proven that the oxford comma is required in some places why wouldn't you include it in all of the sentences where it is possible to put it? This would actually help people who are learning English because it would be one single absolute rule, instead of two shaky rules.

This change would also affect the oration of English (as my opponent pointed out) but not negatively, it would actually help a sentence from going too quickly and would remind the reader to slow down. The Orator could also use the comma as a quick beat to add a little rest in the speech and increase the flow as opposed to increasing the pace.

Supporters Of the Oxford Comma
There are also many writing manuals that suggest use of the Oxford Comma including:APA style, The Chicago manual of style, Strunk and White's elements of style, and the U.S. Government Printing Style manual. Those are all well established manuals on the etiquette of linguistics. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says: "Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence..." Which clearly states that it is needed in my book as it would be used to seperate items. I say this because the penultimate item is still an item in the list. Garner's Modern American Usage also suggests using the comma to avoid ambiguity. Many of the widely accepted experts in the english language suggest the use of the oxford comma.

Reasons why you should use it

It is consistent with conventional usage,
It matches the spoken cadence better then when you ommit it,
It resolves ambiguity,
It's use is consistent with othe means of seperating items in a list,
And when you ommit it, it suggests a larger connection between the last two items in the list

As you can see the people who use it have much better grammar than those who do not.

The Declaration of independence included the Oxford comma. The Declaration of independence is considered to be a well written document.
Shakespeare, a great English author, used the Oxford Comma. People still read an perform his works, coincidence? I think not.

C1) I have stated in my prior statements how the grammatically adept use the oxford in a majority to the grammatically adept that omit it.
C2)I have made a counter argument above
C3)I conced that it is not used in those languages, but the removal of the ambiguity would actually help foreign learners
C4)If it is required in some cases then you dhould be consistent and use it in all possible cases, this will make all of the occasions much easier to read and will make more sense.


The Oxford comma should be used in most, if not all of the time. The Oxford Comma can help remove ambiguity, and make snetences flow better. Usage of the comma can help foreign learners be less confused. The Oxford Comma is widely accepted as a superior way of Linguistics. The Oxford Comma is required

Thank you con for such a unique debate.

Just for Fun

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Oxford University press
Harvard University press
Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books
The Oxford Style Manual, 2002
Debate Round No. 2


R1) Syntactic Ambiguity
My opponent states that it is better to have one single rule, rather than two shaky ones, because the Oxford comma is required in some places to resolve ambiguity. He assumes that the Oxford comma never creates ambiguity, which is completely false.

My opponent used a variant of the common strippers, JFK and Stalin argument to support his case. In fact, if I just altered the example slightly, it would be the Oxford comma which causes ambiguity. Consider:

(I) I brought the clown, Bob and George.
(II) I brought the clown, Bob, and George.

In (I), it is clear that three people - the clown, Bob and George - will be brought. (II) is ambiguous: the clown, Bob, and George can be a list of three items, but Bob may also be a non-restrictive appositive that modifies the clown. Thus having a single rule the mandatory use of the comma will not eliminate all ambiguity.

In formally ambiguous cases, the Oxford commma should be encouraged but even then, omission should sometimes be allowed. This is thanks to pragmatics, which allows readers to deduce meaning. For example, if I wrote a sign that says 'Please Press' above a button, you wouldn't think I'm saying 'impress the reporters' (physical context), and if I said 'Please press to flush', you wouldn't assume that impressing reporters can help you flush the toilet (linguistic context).

In Buttercat's example, the definite article before clown indicates deixis, so the reader likely has some knowledge of who the clowns are. If so, it is not necessary to obligate the use of the Oxford comma there. Consider:

Bob and George are my best friends. We're all fans of the DDO Clowns, who are the funniest clowns on the planet. For this party, I'm going to bring the clowns, Bob and George.

In this paragraph, it is clear that Bob and George are not members of DDO Clowns, to which the clowns refers, so the meaning is clear, even without the comma. Despite formal ambiguity, it is not absolutely necessary to use the Oxford comma here.

Even scientific literature allows formal ambiguity as long as meaning is clear in context. Consider this example of a three-way ambiguity from a corpus of scientific literature, quoted by Huddleston (1971) (1):

Whether the animal or man actually responds by moving or speaking is, however, very seldom determined by the actions of a single receptive fibre.

R2) Oration
Firstly, my opponent appears to have misunderstood my C4, which is about silent reading.

My opponent assumes that slowing down to increase clarity is always good. Yet imagine one is reading aloud a script where one of the characters reads out a long list for comedic effect, e.g. I'm having an apple, two pears, three bananas, ... and fifty desserts. Obviously, the list items must be spoken in rapid succession to maximise the impact of this rhetorical device.

My opponent assumes that slowing down will be effective in increasing clarity. In fact, auditory scene analysis facilitates the perception of the final item of the list. For example, if I said 'Hitler, Mussolini and T..... (bus horn)', you'll still be able to hear 'Tojo'. (2) The extra pause is not needed.

Thirdly, we should not make the comma necessary just because of one small benefit. If a speaker wants to use the Oxford comma to the benefit of his own oration, then sure, but we should not ban the omission of the comma in all contexts. Most writings are not scripts prepared for oration. Furthermore, a careful speaker who always pauses before and in hyperspeech is unlikely to forget this, even in the absence of the Oxford comma.

R3) Supporters Of the Oxford Comma
Regrettably, the whole argument here is a false appeal to authority. Style guides give prescriptive rules on the use of language in one particular register, rules which do not apply universally. The APA style, for example, is mainly applied in the academia, and is unlikely to be employed in, say, a novel. Moreover, much like any other style convention, opinions on the Oxford comma are by no means unequivocal, which is evidenced by the fact that respectable publications such as The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Guardian do not allow its use except in cases of ambiguity. The AP Stylebook, the Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers and the MHRA Style Guide do not support its mandatory use of the comma, either. (3)

I hope my opponent will excuse my temporarily lapse of pedantry, and allow me to point out his erroneous word of the term 'linguistics'. Rather than prescribing rules for language users, modern linguistics has, for the greater part of the 20th century, focused on descriptivism. For example, African American Vernacular English often omits the copula. While other variants of English do not allow the omission of the copula, the omission in AAVE is not considered 'ungrammatical', for there are numerous native speakers who do so. There is no 'the etiquette of linguistics' that language users must follow. If anything, modern linguistics supports the omission of the Oxford comma according to the data I presented in C1. (4)

My opponent also claimed that the Oxford comma is supported by 'Many of the widely accepted experts', a weasel word, and even if had presented real experts, the argument remains a false appeal to authority.

Finally, my opponent cited the Oxford Companion to the English Language, which states, 'Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence.' That this refutes the omission of the Oxford comma is a non-sequitur: 'Pens are used to write words' does not imply 'Pens are used to write all words', just as this sentence does not imply 'Commas are used to separate all items'. In fact, the Companion itself acknowledges that the Oxford comma is 'sometimes superfluous' and 'controveresial'. (6)

R4) Reasons why you should use it
1-3) A series of bare assertions which I've shown to be false in C1, C2 and R1 respectively.
4) Surely, if consistency were the issue, we should eliminate 'and'?
5) Removing the comma only shortens the pause between the penultimate item and the conjunction, not with the last item.

Finally, my opponent cites an online survey. This is invalid because self-assessment of one's grammar is by no means an accurate measure of language proficiency, because online surveys suffer from biased demographics and the possibility of manipulation and because correlation does not imply causation - punctuation is not related to 'grammar' in the sense of morphosyntactic accuracy; these stats do not indicate that the comma is 'grammatical'.

R5) Facts
My opponent presents two historical texts that use the Oxford comma, but both are historical. They have no bearing on present language conventions. 100 years ago, 'today' was spelt as 'to-day'. Orthographic conventions were so shaky in Shakespeare's time, in fact, that he had six ways of spelling his own name. (5)

C1) Descriptivism
My opponent has made a straw man argument. I have never claimed that omitting it is grammatically superior. However, under the premise of descriptivism, there is no reason to impose a ban on practice with widespread use in writing. What is right depends on whether the usage is widespread, not on perceived superiority. With my overwhelming evidence that points to the prevalence of the Oxford comma, it automatically follows from decriptivism that omitting the comma is not wrong.

C2) Prosody
My opponent has made no real counter-arguments apart from a bare assertion under his fourth heading.

C3) Practicality and C4) Readability
I have addressed ambiguity above.

(1) The Sentence in Written English, Huddleston, R. D.
(2) Phonology for Dummies, Katz, F.
(3) Their respective guides
(4) The Study of Language, Yule, G.
(6) Oxford Companion to the English Language



I am sorry, that I cannot post this argument, I ran out of time from camping, some jerk shut down my computer(deleting my arguement), and I am super busy tonight. Give the conduct points to Con if you see fit. I am so sorry guys, but please evaluate arguments on how my prior rounds were and my round four. Thank you for being understanding and for Con being so considerate.
Debate Round No. 3


Unfortunately, my opponent was forced not to post arguments in the previous round. This was not his fault and I urge that voters do not judge his conduct unfavorably because of this.

With that said, I will take advantage of of this round to expand on my responses in the last. I could not type everything I wanted to say because of character limits.

R2) Oration / C2) Prosody

I suspect that, when my opponent responded to my C2, he had his own oration point in mind. The implication is, then, that if people are forced to use the Oxford comma, they would be forced to pause between the penultimate and final items in oration, which will subconsciously change their regular speech for the better as well. I apologise if I have misinterpreted my opponent's intents here; if so, please disregard this argument.

This argument, were it truly what my opponent intended, would be fallacious. Firstly, oration is usually hyperspeech. Even if people subconsciously make the switch to Item N-1 <pause> Item N (in a list of N items) after being accustomed to this style of oration, they will only change their hyperspeech (formal speech) and not their hypospeech.

Secondly, it is usually spoken language that affects written language and not vice versa. This may not be the case in a language where the spoken and written languages are separate, but English is clearly not an example of that. Linguistic change occurs in speech, and this is reflected in the writing. The wealth of colloquial vocabulary that have increasingly appeared in print and the fact that spoken language precedes written language in human history are evidence of this. Writing is, indeed, just a 'symbolic representation of language through the use of graphic signs' (1); it is not possible for us to 'improve' the way people speak by changing how they write.

R4) Reasons why you should use it

The following paragraph was adapted from the article which announced the results of the survey my opponent cited: (2)

The people who tend to prefer the Oxford comma also tend to be the kind of people who will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent. Zealous, but not really the humble type. As Perlman said:

Many people who think they are good at grammar are good at following what they think are the rules: Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, don’t end them with a preposition, etc. They may be less good at knowing why the “rules” exist, and I’ve yet to hear a coherent explanation of why you can’t do any of those things that didn’t involve Latinate references or such deep parsing of parts of speech and linguistics that the goal is lost — was the thought clear and unambiguous?

Even the people who conducted the poll believed that Oxford comma proponents are simply more pedantic people who miss the point - clarity (although Perlman was evidently unaware of developments in linguistics in the past century or so).

R5) Facts

My opponent's reasoning in this section is not valid by any means. I will rewrite his arguments below:

P1) The Declaration of Independence is a well-written document.

P2) The Declaration of Independence uses the Oxford Comma.

C) Well-written documents use the Oxford comma.

This is an over-generalisation. It's like saying this:

P1) The Declaration of Independence uses the phrase 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'.

P2) The Declaration of Independence uses the Oxford Comma.

C) Well-written documents use the phrase 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'

My opponent has not proven that the Oxford comma plays a significant role in making people regard the Declaration Independence as well-written document. The use of the Oxford comma can easily be incidental.

My opponent commits a similar fallacy in his Shakespeare argument. He claims that Shakespeare's use of the Oxford comma is related to the timeless nature of his works, as we can tell by his sentence 'Coincidence? I think not'. Yet that does not imply that his use of the Oxford comma is a cause leading to the timelessness of his works - which I dispute, considering that there are many who praise Shakespeare's writing but, among those, few if any who praise his writing for his use of the Oxford comma.

C1) Descriptivism

Although I stand by what I wrote in previous rounds about descriptivism, I have repeated my search in the two corpora, this time limiting my search to academic documents, which my opponent would no doubt consider to be superior, what with their higher editorial standards.

The BNC is still overwhelmingly anti-Oxford comma:

The COCA, although less flattering towards the omission of the Oxford comma, still displays a 1:3 without-to-with ratio, which still does not support the claim that the inclusion of the comma is a rule, rather than a preference (in the same way that such a proportional between 'he isn't' and 'he's not' would not indicate that one form is correct and the other form wrong):

Again, the above screenshots are limited to academic content, which my opponent would likely consider to be far more careful about language than other sources.


The debate regarding the Oxford comma is a long one, and there have been numerous shots fired on both sides of the argument. Nevertheless, the reasoning supporting mandatory use does not have a leg to stand on.

Contrary to popular belief, the mandatory use of the comma does not eliminate ambiguity in all cases; it may resolve ambiguity in some sentences, but it will also create ambiguity in others. In any case, syntactic ambiguity alone is not justification for mandatory use, for context often allows ambiguity to be sorted out easily by the reader. Only when the reader does not do this should the Oxford comma truly be mandatory.

The array of style guides that support the comma is impressive, to be sure, but there are just as many that oppose its mandatory use, and allow its use for the purpose of resolving ambiguity. Furthermore, style guides only dictate conventions in the fields where they are regarded as authority. Although there may be a possible positive impact, however small, of the comma on oration, this is also no reason to make its use mandatory for all situations and contexts.

I have shown through descriptive evidence in corpora that the omission of the Oxford comma is actually more prevalent than its use. Were my opponent to attack this argument, he would have had to attack the premise of descriptivism itself, that what is correct is not determined by whether there is a significant number of speakers who use it. Alas, he fails to do this, and instead asserts that the more grammatically adept use the Oxford comma - which I have proven false. Even if true, his argument does not attack the premise of descriptivism at all.

I have shown, through sound waves of authentic speech, that the absence of a comma is actually a better representation of actual English prosody than its presence. My opponent disputes this, but does not explain why. I have also defended the omission of the comma on pragmatic grounds, including the fact that the comma confuses L2 learners and that it slows down reading.

My opponent does not, thus far, appear to have provided valid arguments against my case, but I have shown all of his constructive arguments to be invalid or false. As such, the motion must not stand.

I sincerely thank my opponent for the interesting debate. Vote Con!

(1) The Study of Language, Yule, G.



I am going to foreit so please award conduct to Con. Sorry but SOls have conquered me and yard work took up my time. This was a great debate. Again I am sorry for the last two rounds.
Debate Round No. 4
30 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Diqiucun_Cunmin 2 years ago
Thanks Tejas :)
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
Thanks, I'll see if I can later. You did make some great arguments.
Posted by Diqiucun_Cunmin 2 years ago
It's all right, ButterCat, RL does have a tendency of getting in the way. If you'd ever like a rematch, we can do it when you're less busy. ^^
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
You had a great last argument
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
You had a great last argument
Posted by Diqiucun_Cunmin 2 years ago
DDO formatting issues are like a box of chocolates... you never know what you're going to get.

I spent more than 30 minutes getting the formatting right.
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
Thanks man, just post your conclusions and I'll do my rebuttals and conclusions.
Posted by Diqiucun_Cunmin 2 years ago
Ugh, that sucks :( It's OK; accidents will happen.
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
I am sorry if I run out of time, i have explained why
Posted by ButterCatX 2 years ago
I had typed out most of my arguments when some a$$ shut down my computer and it got deleted
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by tejretics 2 years ago
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Total points awarded:10 
Reasons for voting decision: Forfeiture.