Gotcha Grammar: To Use or Not to Use—The Oxford Comma

In our last Gotcha Grammar blog, we explained the complicated world of the apostrophe. This time we thought we’d elucidate a grammar rule that’s a common debate topic among writers—even among those at McCauley Services: the Oxford comma.

Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is used immediately before a conjunction (and, or, and even nor) in a list of three or more things. For example, in the phrase “Tim, Judy, and Frank design websites,” the Oxford comma appears after “Judy.” Whereas in this version, “Tim, Judy and Frank design websites” the Oxford comma is omitted.

You’re probably wondering, “So which one is correct?” Technically, they’re both correct (we told you the English language was tricky!). Copywriters and editors everywhere have strong opinions regarding whether or not to use the Oxford comma. In everyday use, it’s considered correct to utilize the serial comma, while in more journalistic writing (for those who follow the AP Stylebook) it’s a no-no.

Those who argue for the use of the serial comma say that its use in writing matches the rhythm of actual speech, with a pause before the and or the or. Pro-comma writers also feel as though the Oxford comma helps to distinguish and prevent confusion. Also, when a list gets extensive and semi-colons come into use, a semi-colon is always placed before the conjunction. So why not follow the same rules with commas in a list?

Writers and editors who are against the use of the Oxford comma say that the punctuation is unnecessary since the conjunction (and or or) already serves as a separator between the last two items in a list. Others (especially journalists) say that the serial comma adds unnecessary characters to an already tight word-count.

Confusion because of the Oxford comma is evident in the following example:

“John’s mother, Julia, and their dog were featured in the newsletter.” In this phrase, the Oxford comma causes confusion as to whether Julia is the name of John’s mother, of if there are three separate entities—the mother, the dog, and Julia. A better way to phrase it would be to write, “John’s mother (Julia) and the dog” if it’s just two entities, or if it’s three separate entities, “John’s mother as well as Julia and the dog.”

Confusion because of a lack of the Oxford comma is evident in the following example:

“Her brothers, Haley and Judith work in public relations.” In this sentence, it seems as though Haley and Judith are the subject’s brothers. However, when the serial comma is added in, it clarifies that the brothers and Haley and Judith all work in public relations. “Her brothers, Haley, and Judith work in public relations.”

Most grammarians suggest a moderate usage of the Oxford comma, not using it all the time and not eliminating it completely, but instead utilizing it when appropriate to better clarify the intended sentence.

For more writing tips, make sure to stay tuned for future editions of Gotcha Grammar on our blog.