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What is an Oxford Comma: To Use or Not To Use

Julia McCoy
Wednesday, 18th Oct 2023
Julia McCoy
5 min read · Jan 11 2022
what is an Oxford comma

Ever had a heated debate about punctuation when you’re trying to learn grammar rules?

Chances are, it was over the Oxford comma.

This seemingly insignificant little mark has caused uproar in classrooms and courtrooms alike. 

So what is an Oxford comma, exactly? 

An Oxford comma is that extra comma you might see before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items.

The difference it makes can be subtle yet significant, often changing entire meanings of sentences. 

Why the Oxford comma debate?

Some writers use it while others don’t. The use of the Oxford comma is really a matter of style — it’s not right or wrong, but what’s important is to stick to one style and be consistent.

In this blog post, we’ll look at what is an Oxford comma, the history behind the Oxford comma debate, and why the Associated Press does not use it. We’ll also review a few Oxford comma examples.

Table of Contents:

What is an Oxford Comma?

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, gets its name from the prestigious University of Oxford — specifically the Oxford University Press. It’s a punctuation mark used in writing to help clarify meaning.

You’ve likely seen it before – or even used it without realizing it. This little piece of punctuation is found right before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items. 

For example: “I love reading books, playing guitar, and baking cookies.” 

Notice that tiny pause-maker just after “guitar”? That’s the Oxford comma.

But why use it? Does it really matter?

In many cases, yes, comma placement matters. The purpose behind the series comma is to avoid confusion when writing a list of things. 

Think about this sentence: “On my vacation, I saw elephants, my parents and teachers.”

This could be interpreted in two ways:

  • I saw elephants on vacation along with my parents and teachers.
  • I met some very adventurous elephants who happened to be my parents and teachers.

An extra pinch of clarity can save us from such hilarious misunderstandings.

The Oxford comma may be small, but it’s a giant when it comes to preventing ambiguity in your writing. It keeps things clear and orderly.

The use of the Oxford comma is not universal. Some style guides are all for it, while others advise against its use unless absolutely necessary. We’ll look at the Oxford comma debate later.

An Oxford comma can help avoid confusion

History of the Oxford Comma

The tale of the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, began in 1905. It was first used by Horace Hart, who printed Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers as a style guide for authors and printers working at the Oxford University Press.

Hart’s intent? To make things clearer. He wanted to avoid any confusion that might come from listing items without a clear separation.

While the Brits were quick to embrace this new addition, across the pond, reactions were mixed. In America, some folks loved it but others weren’t so sure.

The Chicago Manual of Style championed its use, citing its ability to prevent ambiguity in sentences. But there was one notable holdout: The Associated Press (AP) style guide opted not to use it except where necessary for clarity’s sake.

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Despite its long history and wide usage today, debate over whether or not we should consistently use this tiny yet powerful tool still rages on, with grammarians taking both sides fiercely defending their stance. Linguists continue to argue about its necessity, while authors and editors each have their own preferences.

For those who have a penchant for impeccable grammar, the use of the Oxford comma is not just a stylistic choice but an essential tool to ensure clarity and precision in writing. Many argue that this seemingly insignificant punctuation mark can dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence when omitted.

Arguing for the Affirmative

The primary argument supporting its usage revolves around its ability to eliminate potential ambiguity from sentences. 

Consider this example:

“They sent gifts to her sons, Jeff and Jim.” 

Without the Oxford comma, it appears as though “Jeff” and “Jim” are her sons.

When, in fact, this is what the author meant:

“They sent gifts to her sons, Jeff, and Jim.”

See how the Oxford comma made a difference? It clarified that at least three gifts were sent separately to “her sons,” “Jeff,” and also “Jim.” This subtle difference may seem trivial but it significantly improves precision within your writing.

Another scenario where an Oxford comma proves beneficial is when listing complex terms or clauses. It helps break down information to make comprehension easier for readers. As such, many grammarians passionately advocate for its continued use despite some style guides choosing not to.

Arguing for the Negative

While there are compelling reasons to use the Oxford comma, it’s not without its detractors. Some argue that using this punctuation mark can be overly pedantic and may even sound pompous or hypercorrect in certain situations. They believe readers should be able to discern meaning from context, rendering the extra comma unnecessary.

For instance:

 “I enjoy cake, chicken and chips.” 

It is fairly obvious that these are three separate food items rather than some bizarre trio. Detractors would say adding an additional comma before “and” underestimates reader intelligence and disrupts the natural reading flow.

Beyond sounding pedantic or pompous, critics also point out that the Oxford comma can sometimes create ambiguity. This often occurs due to something called apposition — when you add identifying information about a previous clause.

Consider this example:

“We’re working with John, a farmer, and Tom.” 

In this case, one could interpret we’re collaborating with two individuals — a farmer named John along with another person named Tom. The presence of the Oxford comma introduces confusion here as “a farmer” could be interpreted as an appositive.

If the intended meaning was working alongside three people (John, Tom, and a nameless farmer), then removing the Oxford comma or rephrasing altogether might make things clearer.

Furthermore, one can argue that the conjunction already serves as a sufficient separation between the last two items. After all, the conjunction’s purpose is to signify the connection, making the comma appear redundant, perhaps even tautological. (A tautology, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to a stylistic mistake where there is unnecessary repetition of meaning, though that delves into a different linguistic topic altogether.)

If the absence of an Oxford comma leads to genuine ambiguity, it’s often more effective to rephrase the sentence instead of using the Oxford comma. 

Some might argue that adding a simple comma takes less time than rephrasing a sentence. However, if the result is a more elegantly crafted sentence, one could equally argue that the time spent is well worth it.

The Oxford comma debate is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. Whether you choose to use it or not, the most important thing is ensuring your writing communicates your intended meaning effectively.

Source: Your Dictionary

Benefits of Using an Oxford Comma

Imagine you’re cooking dinner and have invited over some friends. You tell them that you’re serving “chicken, macaroni, and cheese.” Without an Oxford comma, they might think that “macaroni and cheese” is one dish rather than two. 

This simple example shows how vital the use of an Oxford comma can be for clear communication. Like an exclamation point, it can really impact how you want a reader to see your content.

Avoid Misunderstandings 

The primary benefit of using an Oxford comma is that it helps eliminate ambiguity in sentences. It provides a clear separation between items in a list, making it easier for readers to understand the intended meaning. Without the Oxford comma, some sentences can be interpreted in more than one way.

With an Oxford comma: “I had dinner with my parents, John, and Jane.”

Without an Oxford comma: “I had dinner with my parents, John and Jane.”

The first sentence indicates that the speaker had dinner with four people: their two parents, plus John and Jane. The second sentence suggests that the speaker had dinner with only two people, their parents, who are identified as John and Jane. Clearly the use of an Oxford comma can impact the writing tone and clarity.

Consistency

The consistency provided by using the Oxford comma gives structure to your sentences. Think about it like laying bricks – each brick (or word) needs space around it to fit correctly into place.

When writers consistently use the Oxford comma, readers know what to expect and there are fewer chances of confusion.

Professionalism

Many style guides — specifically The Chicago Manual of Style, APA Stylebook, and MLA Style Guide — recommend the use of the Oxford comma in formal writing. Adhering to these style guidelines can lend a sense of professionalism to your writing.

Legal and Technical Writing

In certain fields, such as law and technical writing, precision and clarity are critical. The Oxford comma is often preferred in these contexts to avoid any misinterpretation that could lead to legal or technical issues.

Preservation of Original Intent

Using the Oxford comma can help ensure that the writer’s original intent is conveyed accurately. It leaves less room for misreading or misinterpretation by the reader.

Aesthetic Value

Some writers and editors find that the use of the Oxford comma adds balance and visual clarity to lists, making sentences look more polished and organized.

The AP Style Oxford Comma

Ever wonder why the Associated Press (AP) seems to give the cold shoulder to the Oxford comma? The AP Stylebook, often considered a journalist’s bible, has specific rules on punctuation. And one of those is not to use Oxford commas.

It’s a matter of brevity and economy. Journalists aim for concise writing because every inch in print costs money. Dropping that extra little comma can save valuable space over time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The AP isn’t anti-comma per se; they just prefer you use them sparingly. 

Their rule states:

“Do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.”

That means if you’re listing items like “apples, bananas and cherries,” there’s no need for an extra pause before “and” according to AP style.

A lot of us grew up learning about these optional pauses in English class, so seeing text without them feels odd. Yet many successful writers follow the AP’s style.

Whether you’re a fan of the Oxford comma or not, knowing why some writing styles don’t use it helps you be more agile with your writing. After all, flexibility and knowing your audience are key to effective communication.

When to Use an Oxford Comma

Typically, you’d use an Oxford comma in lists where three or more items are involved.

So instead of saying: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty,” which could imply some very strange family dynamics without proper context, you’d say: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.” 

Here are some other general rules to live by:

  • If confusion might arise from omitting the Oxford comma, it’s best to include it.
  • In headlines or titles with limited space, adding an Oxford comma may not be feasible.
  • If you’re unsure, it’s often safer to include one than not. After all, clarity is king in communication.

Oxford commas can also be used when using interjections in your content to identify breaks in the sentence.

Need to clear up your writing? Remember, the Oxford comma can be a game changer. It adds clarity to lists of three or more items. #WritingTips #OxfordComma Click to Tweet

Alternatives to Using an Oxford Comma

You might be wondering if there’s a way around using the Oxford comma. Here are some options for avoiding it.

The “And” Replacement

One simple trick is replacing the final comma with “and.” 

Let’s consider a previous example: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” 

With no Oxford comma, this sentence suggests your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

To avoid confusion without adding that extra comma, you could rewrite it as:

“I love my parents, and Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

Rewording Sentences

A more creative approach involves rewording sentences entirely. This technique requires some skill but can lead to clearer communication. 

Here’s how:

  • Bullet points: When listing items, or when ideas become too complex or lengthy for one sentence, bullet points come in handy.
  • Sentence breaks: Sometimes all you need is a full stop (or period) instead of commas.
  • Semicolons: These are underrated punctuation marks; semicolons can replace commas between independent clauses sharing similar themes.

If rewriting isn’t your thing, then take a leaf out of the AP Style Book. They suggest only using the serial comma when omitting it would cause ambiguity.

While these alternatives can work well at times, context matters most. So choose wisely based on what best conveys your message.

FAQs – What is an Oxford Comma?

What is an Oxford comma example?

“I bought apples, oranges, and bananas.” The comma after “oranges” is the Oxford comma.

What is the difference between an Oxford comma and a regular comma?

A regular comma has multiple uses in grammar: it separates items in a list, acts as a pause in writing, and separates clauses in a sentence. An Oxford Comma has one purpose: it specifically sits before “and” or “or” in lists of three or more.

Why is the Oxford comma so controversial?

The controversy comes from differing opinions on whether it’s necessary for clarity, with some arguing it can do the opposite and cause confusion.

Is the Oxford comma grammatically correct?

Contrary to what many believe, the Oxford comma is neither correct nor incorrect. Instead, it is grammatically optional. Whether or not you use the Oxford comma will depend on your personal preference and the style guide you adhere to.

What is an Oxford Comma? A Small but Mighty Pause

The Oxford comma: a tiny punctuation mark, but one that can pack quite the punch!

Understanding what is an Oxford comma gives you a powerful tool for clarity in your writing. This little character has a rich history and often changes entire meanings of sentences.

Yes, there are controversies around it. Some love it; others think we don’t need it at all.

The Associated Press Style Guide may not use it, yet many champion it due to its role in precision and coherence. You’ve seen how differently sentences read with or without this particular comma.

Whether you embrace the Oxford comma or seek alternatives will depend on your personal style and preference.

In essence? Be clear about what message you’re trying to convey – because when words get lost in translation, communication fails.

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Written by Julia McCoy

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