The Oxford Comma

One of the most common grammar questions in the English language is that of the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. We use this grammatical device before the words ‘and’, or ‘or’ in a list of three or more items. For example, a sentence using the Oxford comma may go, “The boy is tall, blond, and very smart.” That same sentence could also be written without the Oxford comma and say, “The boy is tall, blond and very smart.” The only difference between the two sentences is that one contains a comma before the word “and” and the other does not. However, people always argue over which version of the sentence is correct.


So, which is it? The truth is that the Oxford comma is not in and of itself correct or incorrect. The Oxford comma is called the Oxford called because by readers, editors, and printers at the Oxford University Press used it as a convention. A convention neither right nor wrong, just a matter of taste. The critical thing to remember is to use the comma   consistently. Either use it every time or don’t use it at all. If you are writing for a publication, check the style guide. Some guides require the use of the Oxford comma, and for some, it is prohibited. Other than that, the only real reason to use the Oxford comma is for clarity.


I prefer the Oxford comma because it can make sentences less ambiguous. For a humorous example of the way skipping the Oxford comma can alter the meaning of a sentence, take the following: “I invited the acrobats, the Queen of England, and Donald Trump to my party.” With the Oxford comma, the invitees are divided into three groups with no ambiguity. When you remove the Oxford comma, however, you get this: “I invited the acrobats, The Queen of England and Donald Trump to my party.” Now it sounds like the Queen of England and Donald Trump are the acrobats, rather than there being three separate groups of guests.


As you can see, the Oxford comma makes it easier to understand the meaning of your sentence. But if it is necessary to forgo the Oxford comma (like if you aren’t using a style guide that allows it), there are still ways to avoid ambiguity. Take the same sentence from before, “I invited the acrobats, The Queen of England and Donald Trump to my party.” To avoid a comical misunderstanding while also avoiding the Oxford comma, you can simply rearrange the order of the items in the list. The sentence now says, “ I invited The Queen of England, the acrobats and Donald Trump to my party.” This sentence is far clearer even without the Oxford comma, although I think it’s as euphonic.


So, there’s the Oxford comma. A small stylistic choice by a university publishing house that still causes grammar arguments every day. But now you know that when someone brings up the question of whether it’s right or wrong, the answer is neither because it depends on the use. If you’re using the APA style guide, it’s required. If you’re writing for a newspaper (which uses the AP style guide), you’re not going to use the Oxford comma. Just remember who you are writing for, and always be consistent with your conventions.


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