Grammar The Oxford Comma |
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The Oxford Comma

Writers and editors tend to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma. If you don’t regularly work with words and grammar, however, you might not even be aware of what the Oxford comma is although you might be using it (or not) in your writing.

Let’s break down what you need to know about the Oxford comma, its uses, and whether you need it.

What Is the Oxford Comma?

An Oxford comma is the final comma that can be used or omitted in a series. For example, consider the two following sentences:

I like apples, oranges and pears.

I like apples, oranges, and pears.

The meaning of each sentence is the same, but the second one has an additional comma after oranges. That optional comma before the last item in the series is known as the Oxford comma. You may have noticed that, at least in this example, the meaning and clarity of each sentence is the same with or without the Oxford comma. So what’s the big deal about it?

The Case For and Against the Oxford Comma

Writers and editors who prefer to use the Oxford comma will assert that it adds clarity to lists. It also creates a natural slot within a sentence where different objects or items need to be listed.

Example
My wife sent me to the store for bread, milk, eggs, butter, and chocolate.

You could say that the Oxford comma isn’t vital to differentiate each item, but some may counter that the list is easier to read and understand this way. In other instances, using the Oxford comma can also help to avoid confusion, as in the following sentences:

We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan and Ted.

We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan, and Ted.

Including an Oxford comma can change or clarify the meaning. The first sentence identifies both Jan and Ted as the grouchy neighbors; Jan and Ted are in apposition with neighbors, and we invited them both (two). By including an Oxford comma, the second sentence creates a series: grouchy neighbors, Jan, and Ted. We invited them all (three).

So, what are the downsides to using the Oxford comma? Some writers and editors think that it can slow a sentence or paragraph. Many people learn to read by saying words out loud. They might pause, even to themselves, when reading long strings, so using an Oxford comma might lengthen their time to get through the piece.

In addition, issues of clarity (such as the one illustrated above) can often be cured in other ways. Let’s look at how else we might arrange our example sentence without the Oxford comma:

We invited Jan and Ted, as well as our grouchy neighbors.

This sentence is just as descriptive as our previous one, and it doesn’t use an Oxford comma.

Do You Need to Use an Oxford Comma?

Now that you know what the Oxford comma is and how to spot it, you might wonder whether you need to use it in your own writing.

The answer will depend largely on the types of writing that you compose and particularly the preferences of your school, employer, or editor. Some companies and publications swear by the Oxford comma while others prefer not to use it. Some follow style guides such as MLA or The Chicago Manual of Style that provide their own direction concerning the Oxford comma. There are also many different writing and editing situations where you will be asked to make the decision on your own.

With all of this in mind, the main point is to know the style that your editor, teacher, or employer prefers and that you be consistent with it. If you use the Oxford comma in one sentence or paragraph, for example, be sure to use it in the next one as well.

Beyond that, you might simply try writing your sentences in different ways—both with and without the Oxford comma—to see what feels natural to you.

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30 responses to “The Oxford Comma”

  1. JET says:

    I just did the daily puzzle called “7 Little Words” for August 18, 2021. The clue was “university, shoe, and comma.” Oxford University and oxford shoe made sense to me. But Oxford comma puzzled me until I read this article.

  2. Linda H says:

    I’ve heard a lot about the Oxford comma but never understood what they meant. Now I understand and realize I’ve used it many times. I like the clarity it brings to my sentence or statement. Glad I researched it and found this resource. I’ll be referring to this website more often in future. Thanks for clearing up this question for me.

  3. Holly Chorba says:

    Great explanation of the Oxford comma…Thank you!

  4. Sally says:

    I love the Oxford Comma!❤️
    It clarifies writing and separates the items on the list. It makes all items on the list equal. And I think it’s more elegant. I’ve always used it, and persisted when many others stopped using it.

    I love grammar. This site looks great! Will visit again soon.

  5. Daniel Marks says:

    “I am going to England to see my parents, Elton John and Queen Elizabeth.”

    The Oxford comma makes it clear that Elton and Liz are not my parents.

  6. John says:

    British English speaker here.

    At school I was taught that the Oxford comma is always an error. Frankly, I disagree.

    I wouldn’t put one in “apples, oranges and bananas.” However, in the “Jan and Ted” example, there is a pause when speaking (or not) to clarify the sense. Likewise, in a list of longer phrases, there’s a pause before the last element: “a number of awful misspellings, a howling grammatical solecism, and two misplaced apostrophes.” In short, to express yourself clearly, follow the prosody.

    Incidentally there’s a similar idea in some computer languages, where the syntax allows a trailing comma at the end of a list, to make cut and paste adjustments easier: fruit = (“apples,” “oranges,” “bananas,”) This isn’t called an Oxford comma, but it should be.

  7. Suzie says:

    I was taught to use the Oxford comma when writing. I like it. I feel that clarity is ours when the Oxford comma is used. I will always use it, as I am old, and things were better in the “olden” days! JMHO…

  8. Mike Reynolds says:

    I was always taught that a comma after and/but/yet was not necessary. The defense of not using a comma after and – a redundancy, as they both suggested the same thing.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Our post Coordinating Conjunctions says, “A coordinating conjunction can function with many different parts of speech and sentences such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and clauses.” There are sentences where a comma after one of these words is necessary. Oxford commas are not placed after the word and.

  9. Mike Wilding says:

    Could you include any stats showing what percent of authors or editors prefer the Oxford comma or not. Speaking as a chocolate lover, I enjoyed the example of the shopping list, where I felt the Oxford comma added a subtle nuance.

    Great explanation, thanks.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      We are not aware of any particular statistics concerning the percent of Oxford comma use, but we do know that you will find it much more often in formal publications such as books, reports, and legal documents. The percentage of use will typically drop in communications such as business marketing and online blogs.

  10. Scott Wiebe says:

    I learned the Oxford comma could also be used to denote whether the last two items of a list are associated with each other.
    “I’ll be stopping at the houses of Joseph, Sarah, Peter and Jane, Sally, Eustace and Jenny.”
    The reader would infer that “Peter and Jane” share a house, but it’s not clear if Eustace and Jenny share a house. I could be stopping at five houses, or I could be stopping at six.
    “I’ll be stopping at the houses of Joseph, Sarah, Peter and Jane, Sally, Eustace, and Jenny.”
    In the second example it is clear that Eustace and Jenny do not share a house, and I am visiting six houses. In the first example you’d only know it was five if you were familiar with my writing style. If you didn’t know my style (or if you knew the writer does not use Oxford commas), it would be unclear whether it was five or six houses on the itinerary.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The sentence seems to be an incomplete series without a concluding “and.” We would rewrite as follows:
      I’ll be stopping at the houses of Joseph, Sarah, Peter and Jane, Sally, and Eustace and Jenny.
      This kind of sentence could also be expressed as a vertical list to ensure clarity. Our post Commas in Lists explains the varied styles and treatments of vertical lists. Example:
      I will be stopping at the houses of the following:
      1. Joseph
      2. Sarah
      3. Peter and Jane
      4. Sally
      5. Eustace and Jenny

  11. Boyce Burdick says:

    Why all of a sudden are people talking about it? I never heard the term until two years ago. When I took typing in summer school in the 1950s, the term was not used and I was taught to always place a comma before the and or or in a list. Also you always typed two spaces after a period.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      We have been writing about the Oxford Comma for quite some time. It is also known as a “serial comma.” See our post Rules Do Change for information on spacing.

  12. John B says:

    I would like to emphasize something Scott Wiebe mentions. I don’t see how the Oxford comma clarifies a sentence, unless it is in *universal use.*

    Consider the two example sentences in the article:
    1. We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan and Ted.
    2. We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan, and Ted.

    The second sentence is clear. The presence of the Oxford comma signals two things – that the writer uses the Oxford comma, and that Jan and Ted have been invited as well as the grouchy neighbors.

    However, the article states that “Including an Oxford comma can change or clarify the meaning. The first sentence identifies both Jan and Ted as the grouchy neighbors…”. However, in common usage, since the Oxford comma has not been universally adopted, its *absence* in the first sentence means nothing. Unless the writer has otherwise signaled that she is an Oxford comma devotee, the reader does not know whether the grouchy neighbors *are* Jan and Ted (Oxford comma convention) or could be (or not) (if the writer does not use Oxford commas).

    As if that wasn’t bad enough, we can conceive of other situations when even the Oxford comma does not eliminate uncertainly. In sentence 1, the clarifying power of the Oxford comma actually comes only partly from the convention itself, but mainly from the fact that “Jan” is singular, so she cannot be the neighbor*s*. However, consider this sentence:
    3. We invited our grouchy neighbors, the Jansons, and Ted.

    Even with the Oxford comma, there is no clarity about whether the Jansons are the neighbors, or whether they are being invited together with the neighbors.

    The article writer correctly identifies the appropriate way to eliminate confusion without resorting to persuading the whole world to adopt this convention. Recast the sentence as “We invited Jan and Ted, as well as our grouchy neighbors” (If Jan and Ted are *not* the grouchy neighbors). Presumably, “We invited Jan and Ted (our grouchy neighbors)” would be the appropriate sentence in the other case.

    So, enjoy the Oxford comma if you wish. But that comma will need a lot more devotees before it really starts to add clarity. Even then, it won’t add much.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      We agree that the Oxford comma or its omission should serve to clarify rather than operate as a fixed grammatical principle. If what appears to be proper punctuation instead adds ambiguity, the sentence should and often can be rewritten.

  13. Phillida says:

    Coming to you strictly as an intellectual commoner:
    I prefer using the Oxford comma only when necessary for meaning, as in your grouchy neighbor’s example. It feels to me self-conscious, stilted and unmusical otherwise! In a formal document for bullet point-type clarity?….sure!
    Great site. Definitely bookmarking for practical use. Thank you.

  14. Joe Dobbins says:

    Simply use it to ensure clarity. We do not know how people read items when they are reading to themselves Therefore, why wouldn’t we simply ALWAYS include it to avoid any confusion and do so every time. Otherwise…..I love my parents, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Glad to know EB and SC are your parents, as I can’t read that any other way.

  15. Maya Ayala says:

    My freshman writing professor hated the Oxford comma. She was a graduate of Princeton who favored MLA rules for writing, grammar and syntax. However, she also taught her students to space twice at the end of a sentence (which was something more common in the days of typewriters rather than computers). I do see the advantage of the Oxford comma when listing groups of three. The “and” found between the second and third item can indicate relation to the first item. However, this usually isn’t a problem if you understand the context OR in lists of four or more. An Oxford comma just isn’t necessary when the sentence is clear without it.

  16. Andrew Cochrane says:

    I always omit the so-called “Oxford comma” because, to me, its use is superfluous, i.e. there is no ambiguity without it. I would certainly use a comma AFTER a series of nouns or adjectives to denote that what follows is no longer part of the series, but this would not be an “Oxford” comma.

    “I like apples, oranges and pears.” In this example it is plain that an “Oxford comma” would do nothing to add any meaning or clarity, as the meaning is perfectly clear without it.

    “I like apples and oranges, and pears are also nice.” In this example the last comma is not the “Oxford” variety, and is required to indicate that what is about to follow the “and” will not be part of the preceding series. This comma reflects the natural pause in speech between the two clauses.

  17. Eleanor Koth Matthews says:

    In the 60s I was taught not to put a comma after the last “and.” For example, “I got a new coat, gloves and a hat yesterday.”
    When I taught college English, I was converted to the Oxford comma by this example: “We elected a new president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.” As the book I was using pointed out, this version creates a question. Are there 3 or 4 new appointees? In some organizations the position of “secretary and treasurer” is one person; in other (usually smaller) organizations it is one person.
    I use the Oxford comma when I feel it is useful for clarity.

  18. Jon says:

    “I found a blue, green and red ball.” Without the Oxford comma, it would be easy to mistakenly believe that I found two balls, a blue one, and a green and one. But I really found three balls.
    Since including the Oxford comma never results in an incorrect conclusion, it should be required.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      We interpret your example as meaning there is one ball that has three colors on it. To distinguish two balls, we would write the sentence as “I found a blue ball and a red and green ball.” If we wanted to convey the discovery of three balls, we would write it as “I found a blue ball, a red ball, and a green ball.” If written as “I found blue, red, and green balls,” the sentence would identify three differently colored balls of an undetermined total quantity.

  19. Mick Rood says:

    As an advocate of the less punctuation the better, I posit that the Oxford comma should be avoided because it is not needed. A comma tells you that there are more items coming in a list. Lack of a comma tells you that the next item in the list is the last. Clutter be gone! Should clarity be needed, as you point out, rewrite the sentence.

  20. Steve Sabin says:

    I believe the move to omit the Oxford Comma was driven largely by old-school hardcopy print publications like newspapers and magazines that sometimes needed to find every available column-inch of space and this meant omitting as much punctuation as possible. It sounds like a nit, but apparently it could add up over the course of a page and make a typesetter’s job difficult.

    Personally, I was taught in elementary school that the Oxford comma was correct punctuation and not just an optional, personal preference. It wasn’t referred to as an Oxford Comma because there was no need to distinguish it as a special type of comma – or one that needed special justification to exist. Indeed, it didn’t get its name until 1978. Before that it was simply a serial comma.

    I don’t like the idea that things like the AP Style Guide start dictating our grammatical rules simply because one industry – paper & ink printed news (which is becoming a dinosaur anyway) – thinks that an inconvenience for them should become a rule for the rest of us. Yes, the omission of that final comma results in ambiguity. And that ambiguity has literally resulted in lawsuits when it comes to business contracts. And no, omitting it because you think it interrupts your reading cadence isn’t sufficient reason to warrant throwing it away. There is no harm in leaving it in and can create ambiguity when left out. So why not make life simple and leave it in? How many instances these days literally need to free up that tiny amount of space to satisfy a typesetter for a printed piece?

  21. David Fisk says:

    Robert Frost, in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” did not use the Oxford comma in the poem’s last stanza:
    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, . . .”
    An editor or typesetter inserted a comma after “dark” to give:
    “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, . . .”
    Frost’s version implies that the woods are lovely because they are dark and deep [very interesting]. The edited version says only that the woods have three characteristics: they are lovely, they are dark, and they are deep [ho-hum].
    Frost had the Oxford comma removed. Unfortunately, subsequent do-gooders tend to re-insert it.

  22. Ox Ford says:

    The first and second sentences of your first example are not the same.

    The second sentence:
    I like apples, oranges, and pears.

    This sentence means I like apples AND I like oranges AND I like pears.

    The first sentence, the one without the Oxford comma:
    I like apples, oranges and pears.

    This different sentence means I like apples AND I like oranges and pears. Oranges and pears are together. They are not separate.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The sentence without the Oxford comma would not be complete in daily formal writing according to your interpretation: I like [apples], [oranges and pears].

      A better way to express the separation of elements would be:
      I like apples, and I like oranges and pears.
      I like apples, as well as oranges and pears.

      Or, even more succinctly:
      I like apples, and I like oranges and pears together.

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