The Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma. Some love it and some hate it. But why?

The Oxford comma is a comma that goes before the words “and”, “or”, and “nor” in a list of 3 or more items. For example:

“I had eggs, toast, and orange juice.”

Many people, including myself, were taught at primary school never to put a comma before the word “and”, as it is wrong. But is it?

The main use of the Oxford comma, also called the Serial Comma or the Harvard Comma is to avoid ambiguity and to clarify meaning.

Meaning is clear in a simple list with or without an Oxford comma:

“She wore tan shoes, pink shoelaces and a polka dot dress.”

This sentence clearly states three separate items of clothing.

“She wore tan shoes, pink shoelaces, and a polka dot dress.”

This sentence also clearly states three separate items of clothing.

However, in a complicated list, meaning can be ambiguous without the use of an Oxford comma.

“I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.”

This suggests that your parents are Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, a mistake which can be avoided with the use of an Oxford comma.

“I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.”

The comma also helps in lists which contain compound terms (“meat” and “vegetable pies”) joined by a conjunction (“and”), such as:

“The bar sold cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies, and sandwiches.”

Without an Oxford comma, this sentence suggests that the pies and sandwiches were vegetable:

“The bar sold cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies and sandwiches.”

When planning to publish your work, you should bear in mind that some organisations such as The Associated Press, The Economist, and the New York Times dislike, avoid, and omit the Oxford comma.The comma has been part of Oxford University Press style for centuries, changing its name from the serial comma to the more well-known Oxford comma, but was rejected recently by the university’s branding people to get academics to be consistent. But the Oxford Press still uses it, along with The Elements of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Medical Association.

However, the general consensus seems to be that you can choose to use the Oxford comma, or not use it, but you should be consistent.

Pros:

  • Primary school does not always teach you the right way to do things
  • Avoids ambiguity
  • Clarifies meaning
  • Matches the natural speech pattern of pausing before the last item in a series
  • Supported by Oxford university

Cons:

  • Unnecessary in simple sentences
  • Some organisations do not allow it
  • In some instances it does not help clarity and can introduce ambiguity
  • Can be redundant, as the preceding conjunction serves the same purpose as the comma
  • Takes up more space
  • Mostly only used in America (obviously not a con if you are from America – use away!)
  • People such as teachers and employers may attempt to correct you

In conclusion

If you live in the UK, then either use the Oxford comma and swear by it, use it when it is necessary, or don’t use it at all. If you live in America, then you should probably use it. If you live elsewhere, I have no idea! But I would suggest you do want you feel is right wherever you live because, really, it doesn’t matter what other people think about your grammar unless people like your teachers or tutors are telling you to do it another way, in which case should probably listen to them… or carry on regardless if you want!

 

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