Columns > Published on March 14th, 2014

The Eternal Duel: A History of Commas

Commas are a touchy subject, having divided writers of the English language into two distinct camps for many years.

On one side of the battlefield are those in favor the Oxford or “serial” comma, which is endorsed by Oxford University Press and the Chicago Manual of Style. In the other corner of the ring are the Associated Press and New York Times, ever skeptical of any unnecessary punctuation.

NPR’s Linda Holmes has a succinct way of describing the root cause of the comma wars:

For those of you who enjoy the outdoors and would no more sort commas into classes than you would organize peanut butter jars in order of viscosity, the serial comma — or "Oxford comma" — is the final comma that comes in a sentence like this: ‘I met a realtor, a DJ, a surfer, and a pharmaceutical salesperson.’ (In this sentence, I am on The Bachelorette.)

Just to reiterate the obvious, some believe the final comma should be included, while others argue that it must be left out.

Incidentally, Holmes makes a decent point— when did anyone start taking commas so seriously? Although it sheds little light on the sheer amount of animosity tied up in this debate, here’s a brief timeline of the comma’s history so far:

Prehistory - 300 B.C., Approximately

As man learned to speak, commas were in the predevelopment phase. Commas are a natural resting point in a sentence, and they evolved out of a need for orators to pause and draw breath. They first began appearing as marks on a page in ancient Rome and Greece, with a single “beat”  representing a short stop in a lengthy speech.

A.D. 400 - 1480

According to the University of Wisconsin’s ‘Comma Project,’ Saint Augustine couldn’t bear to hear Scripture read aloud incorrectly, which lead him to lobby the church for set scripture regulations.

Oxford University first became involved in the print trade in the late fifteenth century, publishing mainly religious and scholarly texts.


The King’s English was published, setting firmer rules for the use of commas. During much of the nineteenth century, commas were used everywhere, all willy-nilly — it was indecent.


Outside the Lowell Athenaeum, to this day there hangs a sign that reads: “On this site on August 15, 1968, authors Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs came to blows over a disagreement regarding the Oxford comma.”

There’s some debate as to whether the fight really occurred, but it still makes a fantastic story.


Indie pop group Vampire Weekend released their single, “Oxford Comma.” In a Vanity Fair interview, the song’s writers state that it’s “more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”


The Oxford PR department renounced the Oxford comma. Although the Oxford University Press still stands staunchly behind its beloved punctuation mark, this was a blow beneath the belt for Oxford comma purists everywhere.

2013 - Present

Last December, Sky News incited grammar-crazed riots by posting a photo of Barack Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro. The caption read: “A handshake and a proposal?”

The Oxford Comma has its own facebook page with over thirty-two thousand likes and counting, as of the writing of this article. Apparently, the comma debate is still going strong, as the most recent comment on its timeline is: “I HATE YOU ALL!”

So much trouble, over such a little thing.


Ohio State Writing Resources

University of Wisconsin Comma Project

Image licensed under Creative Commons

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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