Microsoft Word and the Oxford comma

How Word can warn you about the ‘Oxford’ or serial comma’?

The Oxford comma is one of those grammatical things that most people don’t worry about but can get others soooo excited.

It’s a question of whether to add a comma at the end of a list for example:

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook

OR the Oxford comma version …

Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook

Wikipedia has some good examples of where the ‘extra’ comma makes the meaning clear. For example “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. ” could imply that the parents’ names are Ayn Rand and the Almighty. Adding a comma can eliminate that (unlikely) possibility.

But to others the extra comma is a question of style.

Microsoft Word has had Oxford comma checks ever since Word 2002 (XP). The only thing that’s changed is the setting location.

In Word 2002 and Word 2003: Tools | Options | Spelling and Grammar | Settings.

Word 2007, Word 2010 and Word 2013: File | Options | Proofing | Writing Style | Settings.

http://img.office-watch.com/ow/Word%202013%20Oxford%20serial%20comma%201.png image from Microsoft Word and the Oxford comma at Office-Watch.com

The default setting is ” Don’t check ” which is why most people don’t even realize Word can check for Oxford/serial commas.

The other choices are:

Always: Oxford/Serial comma preferred. Warn if there is NOT an extra comma

Never: Oxford/Serial comma NOT required. Warn if there IS an extra comma

How does Word 2013’s Grammar check work in practice? We tried some examples with the comma setting on and off. The results aren’t what you might expect. Tested with Word 2013 – US English dictionary. The Oxford comma sentences are in orange.

http://img.office-watch.com/ow/Word%202013%20Oxford%20serial%20comma%202.png image from Microsoft Word and the Oxford comma at Office-Watch.com

Correction:  The last isn’t strictly an Oxford Comma example, even  thought the Word grammar system complains about it when ‘Never’ is selected.

On the left ‘Always’ examples, only the first Warren Zevon quote gets a blue squiggly line. It seems to us that all four lines with black text should get marked by Word’s grammar checker when ‘Always’ is chosen.

On the right, the orange lines should be marked as wrong (blue squiggly line). They are but not for the famous Superman saying. Whether Word is correct is an debatable point.

The ‘Lynne Truss’ example is a bug. If the last two sentences are wrong in the ‘Never’ example then their ‘non comma’ versions on the left should be wrong when the setting is reversed. That doesn’t happen which looks wrong.

Grammar checking in English is hard and the software does a remarkable but imperfect job. The moral of this, like all Word 2013 Grammar checks, is that the feature isn’t perfect and is no substitute for proof reading. A mistake that Office Watch is all too aware of .