The Oxford comma is the final comma in a list of three or more things. Here’s an example:
- With Oxford comma: “We went to the store for eggs, bread, and milk.”.
- Without Oxford comma: “We went to the store for eggs, bread and milk.”
Also called the serial comma, it has been the subject of debate for some time. Should you use it? Should you not use it? Any Google search will return countless articles on why you should use it, why you shouldn’t, and why it doesn’t matter.
Personally, I use it. But there isn’t really any “rule” that says you have to use it too.
Who uses it?
Whether you use it may depend on your profession. For example, journalists who follow AP Style do not use serial commas; however, most law professionals demand it. According to The Serial Comma in Interpreting Criminal Statutes, published on the American Bar Association’s website, many authorities, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, state legislative and congressional manuals, and many style guidelines, actually require the use of the Oxford comma.
Many entities and professions that do not tolerate ambiguity recommend the Oxford comma. The MLA, the Chicago Style Manual, and the U.S. Government Printing Office all recommend the use of the Oxford comma.
It is most common in the U.S., though style guides in other English-speaking countries may recommend it only to prevent ambiguity and ensure clarity. The Oxford University Press, not surprisingly, recommends it.
On the anti-Oxford comma side, Gus Lubin of Business Insider argues why Oxford commas are overrated. (It is worth noting that Business Insider requires the use of the Oxford comma.) He says that most people only care about Oxford commas because their teachers required they use them in school. He also says that he was pro-Oxford comma until meeting with a friend whose corporate law firm omits the use of the serial comma. He came to the realization that the Oxford comma may create ambiguity, rather than prevent it, in certain situations.
Does the Oxford comma create or clear up ambiguity?
Those in favor of the Oxford comma claim that it promotes clarity and prevents ambiguity. Consider this common example:
- With Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are my parents, God, and Mother Teresa.”
- Without Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are my parents, God and Mother Teresa.”
In the first example, it’s clear that there have been three major influences on the writer’s life: her parents, God, and Mother Teresa.
In the second example, it appears as if the writer is claiming that her parents are God and Mother Teresa.
But on the other side, opponents of the Oxford comma point out how its use can also create ambiguity. Consider this example:
- With Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are my mother, Mother Teresa, and God.”
- Without Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are my mother, Mother Teresa and God.”
In this case, the second example is clearer. The first example suggests the writer is claiming that her mother is Mother Teresa.
So what is one to do?
Unless you have to follow a particular style guide, it is up to you whether to use the Oxford comma. Whatever you choose, try to be consistent, but don’t stick to a rigid rule at the expense of clarity.
In fact, if you aren’t sure whether a comma makes a sentence unclear, you can try to reword it. Here’s another example:
- With Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are Mother Theresa, God, and my parents.”
- Without Oxford comma: “My biggest influences are Mother Teresa, God and my mother.
Now both sentences – one with the Oxford comma and one without – are clear.
For more punctuation tips, check out last week’s blog on the greengrocer’s apostrophe and come back next week to read about using quotation marks. As always, if you need help writing content for your website, call us: 888-521-3880.