IN THIS ARTICLE

    Writing 101

    Writer – Is the Oxford comma necessary?

    Is the Oxford Comma necessary

     

    Want to know the quickest way to start a heated debate among writers, editors, and English teachers? Ask this question. 

    Is the Oxford comma necessary? 

    It seems like writers are willing to go to war over the Oxford comma. Some are diehard fans, and others insist it should be banished from the English language. 

    So, should you be using the Oxford comma? And when do you need to use it?

    In this post, we’ll cover the basics that you need to know about the use of the Oxford comma, including the rules that apply to it, whether or not it’s grammatically correct, and examples of the correct and incorrect way to use it.

    What’s the Oxford comma rule?

    The Oxford comma, a.k.a. the serial comma, is the last comma in a list. The Oxford comma should be placed before the word “and” at the end of a list.

    Here’s a quick example of what a sentence with the Oxford comma would look like:

     

    I have three dogs named Blaze, Buster, and Dash.


    The same sentence without the Oxford comma would read:

     

    I have three dogs named Blaze, Buster and Dash. 

     

    Whether or not you choose to add a comma will depend on the styleguide you follow. For instance, AP Style doesn’t require the Oxford comma, while the Chicago Manual of Style requires it in almost all cases. Be sure to check with the styleguide you use to see if the Oxford comma is a requirement or not.

    Are Oxford commas grammatically correct?

    Contrary to what most students believe, the Oxford comma isn’t grammatically correct. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to use it. Instead, it’s grammatically optional.

    As mentioned in the section above, whether or not you use the Oxford comma will depend on the styleguide you follow. Some styleguides require you to use it, while others, like the Associated Press Stylebook, consider it unnecessary.

    The type of writing you’re doing, the meaning of a sentence, and your personal preference will also come into play. 

    Rest assured that regardless of what grammarians, English teachers, and your friends may think, you won’t be breaking any grammar rules if you include or omit the Oxford comma in your writing.

    Even if it isn’t a grammatical faux pas, the Oxford comma does have its place. For instance, lawyers or legal writers are encouraged to include the Oxford comma for clarity. While the serial comma does help clarify lists, it can interfere with good sentence composition and flow. Many journalists are against it for this reason. Some even argue that it makes for lazy writing or clutters the piece with unnecessary punctuation.

    Here’s an example of the Oxford comma being used to clarify a sentence:

     

    Oxford comma: “I live with my parents, cat, and dog.”

     

    And the same sentence without:

     

    No Oxford comma: “I live with my parents, cat and dog.”

     

    You can see how dropping the serial comma can create some confusion, or at the very least, a silly sentence. Without the Oxford comma, it seems that the parents are the cat and dog. With it, you can tell the parents, cat, and dog are all different parts of the list.

    However, someone against the Oxford comma could claim that the writer should simply reword their sentence. They could change it to:

     

    “I live with my parents. I also have a cat and dog.”

     

    These sentences nix the issue of using or not using the Oxford comma. They also emphasize the difference in the groups. Yes, the result is a bit longer than the original sentences, but it adds even more clarity.

    In the next section, we’ll give a few more examples so you can see how to use and not to use the serial comma.

    Oxford comma examples

     

    Example #1:

    “Lee, Miller, and Swanson”

    In this example, we’re using the last names Lee, Miller, and Swanson as a title. You might see something like this as a law firm in your city. The ampersand (&) doesn’t pair well with the Oxford comma. If you wanted to use the ampersand in the title, you would need to drop the Oxford comma, so the title read like this, “Lee, Miller & Swanson.” If you prefer to use the serial comma, then you’ll need to give up the ampersand as shown in the correct usage above.

     

    Example #2:

    Correct: “My heroes are my grandparents, Batman, and Wonder Woman.” Incorrect: “My heroes are my grandparents, Batman and Wonder Woman.”

    In this example, leaving out the Oxford comma makes it seem like Batman and Wonder Woman are the author’s grandparents. An intriguing power couple, but not likely what the author intended. If the author didn’t want to use the Oxford comma, they could rework the sentence for clarity like this, “My heroes are my grandparents as well as Batman and Wonder Woman.”

     

    Example #3:

    Correct: “In history class, we're learning about Plato, Socrates, and Ayn Rand.” Incorrect: “In history class, we're learning about, Plato, Socrates, and Ayn Rand.”

    In this instance, both examples use a correctly placed Oxford comma following “Socrates.” However, the incorrect example uses an extra comma after “about” to start the list. The sentence doesn’t make sense this way.

     

    Example #4:

    Correct: “When I grow up, I want to be a truck driver, forklift operator, or a social media manager." Incorrect: “When I grow up, I want to be a truck driver, forklift operator or a social media manager."

    In this example, the second sentence is incorrect because it is missing a final comma after the forklift operator.

     

    Example #5:

    Correct: “The colors are red, white, and blue.” Incorrect: “The colors are red white and blue.”

    In this case, not just the serial comma is left out, but all commas have been left out of the incorrect example. This goes to show the importance of using commas to separate words in a list. Yes, it would still make sense without the Oxford comma after white, but it certainly doesn’t make sense when commas are left out altogether.

     

    Example #6:

    Perhaps one of the most interesting cases of a missing Oxford comma was a real-life dispute that resulted in a $5 million lawsuit. In this legal mishap reported on by The New York Times, Maine legislation stated:

     

    “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

    (1) Agricultural produce;

    (2) Meat and fish products; and

    (3) Perishable foods.”

     

    Maine law requires overtime pay – equal to time-and-a-half pay – for each hour worked after 40 hours, but exemptions were made for the duties listed above. Without an extra comma following the word “shipment,” the courts ruled that it was unclear what was exempt. Was it the distribution of the three categories: agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods? Or was the exemption intended for packing for the shipment or distribution of them?

    As a result of the lawsuit, the legislation was changed to:

     

    “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

    (1) Agricultural produce;

    (2) Meat and fish products; and

    (3) Perishable foods.”

    ***

    When it comes to the Oxford comma, you have options. Go with the requirements of the styleguide you’re using when applicable, but when it comes down to personal preference, go with your gut. Whether you use the Oxford comma or prefer the lack of a comma, just keep it consistent all the time. And most importantly – make sure your sentences are clear.