What Is An Oxford Comma, And Should You Be Using it?

Lynne Truss, the author of the well-known English grammar book Eats Shoots & Leaves, once said “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, series comma, or Harvard comma, is the final comma in a list of three or more things. Should you use this comma? Why is it so controversial? Let’s learn about this little punctuation mark that is a flashpoint for grammar arguments.

What Is An Oxford Comma?

The Oxford comma, which takes its name because its use is recommended by the Oxford Style Manual, is used in lists (or series) of three or more things.

For example:

For lunch I had an apple, a sandwich, and a soda.

The same sentence without the Oxford comma would read:

For lunch I had an apple, a sandwich and a soda.

This doesn’t seem particularly controversial or difficult, right? Both sentences look fine. People who don’t like the Oxford comma think it is unnecessary. However, advocates for the Oxford comma will argue that it is necessary for clarity.

Let us take an example:

           Mary invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Without the Oxford comma, the reader is left wondering if JFK and Stalin are the strippers or if the strippers were invited in addition to the famous leaders, JFK and Stalin. Another famous example is the sentence:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Are Ayn Rand and God the parents of the author of this book? My goodness!

These two examples seem like clear arguments for the Oxford comma. In these sentences, inserting a comma between “JFK and Stalin” and “Ayn Rand and God” removes any doubt and easily solves the problem.

So Why Not Use the Oxford Comma?

The examples above seem pretty clear: The Oxford comma can be very helpful. So why not use it?

First, it can be argued that the sentences above could simply be rewritten to achieve clarity.

For example:

            Mary invited JFK, the strippers and Stalin.

            This book is dedicated to God, my parents and Ayn Rand.

By simply rewriting these sentences, the ambiguity is removed, and we don’t need to use the Oxford comma.

In addition, there are some situations where using the Oxford comma can actually create ambiguity rather than resolve it. Let’s consider the following sentence.

They went to LA with Alex, a former criminal, and his wife.

This sentence is a bit of a mess. Is Alex a former criminal? Or did they go to LA with Alex and a former criminal and the former criminal’s wife? The inclusion of the Oxford comma means that the sentence can be read to mean both things because it can be mistaken for a set-off comma that is commonly used to include extra information in a sentence. Depending on how a sentence is written, the two types of commas can easily be confused. If we remove the Oxford comma in the sentence above, it becomes clear that the second interpretation is correct. However, if Alex is a former criminal and the comma is indeed a set-off comma, it would be better to rearrange the whole phrase like so:

They went to LA with Alex, who was a former criminal, and his wife.

They went to LA with Alex, the former criminal, and Alex’s wife.

They went to LA with Alex’s wife and Alex, a former criminal.

Finally, some people say that the Oxford comma isn’t necessary because the conjunction (and, or, but) conveys the same meaning already. The addition of the comma is redundant.

What Do the Style Guides Say?

If you were thinking you might find clarity and consistency by turning to popular style guides, think again. The style guides disagree just as strongly about this issue as the writers that use them. Overall, the Oxford comma is used a bit more frequently in American English than it is in British English. Most American style guides including the Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Modern Language Association (MLA) support its use. However, the Associated Press Stylebook is staunchly against. The Times and Economist are against its use, while the Guardian allows it in situations where its absence might result in confusion. In Australia, Canada, and South Africa, use of the Oxford comma is generally restricted to academic publications unless its absence makes a sentence unclear.

You might notice that academic style books tend to prefer the Oxford comma, while journalistic style books oppose it or only support its use in certain situations. One of the biggest arguments against the Oxford comma is that because rephrasing can usually solve any problems caused by its absence, using it just unnecessarily takes up space. For journalists, who are limited by the constraints of available print space, eliminating even a small comma can be important.

Should I Use the Oxford Comma?

So, should you use the Oxford comma? Ultimately it is a matter of personal preference, and so it is up to you! One way to decide is to consider what audience you are writing for. If you’re writing casually, for example a blog or a social media post, its use is entirely up to you. You should of course follow the relevant style guide when writing a news article or an academic publication. The Oxford comma will likely be appropriate for a more formal context.

Many people struggle with correct comma use in general! Writers of all levels make mistakes when using commas. One thing that can make life easier for you as you write is use of an AI grammar checking tool. AI writing assistants like Trinka can rapidly adjust comma usage in a paper to align with a style guide so you never have to worry about getting it right. Other resources, like professional editors, can also assist you in making sure your use of commas achieves your ultimate goal: clear, concise communication. Whether you love or hate the Oxford comma, it’s important to remember that this comma is just one more tool in your English arsenal to communicate well.

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