Oxford Commas: What your English teacher DIDN’T teach you!


The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things. For example: … Unless you’re writing for a particular publication or drafting an essay for school, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings.

In English language punctuation, a serial comma, or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or Harvard comma), is a comma placed immediately after the penultimate term (i.e. before the coordinating conjunction [usually and or or]) in a series of three or more terms. For example, a list of three countries might be punctuated either as “France, Italy and Spain” (without the serial comma) or “France, Italy, and Spain” (with the serial comma).

Opinions among writers and editors differ on whether to use the serial comma, and usage also differs somewhat between regional varieties of English.

British English allows constructions with or without this comma, while in American English it is common and sometimes even considered mandatory to use the comma.

A majority of American style guides mandate use of the serial comma, including APA style, The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The MLA Style Manual, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.

By contrast, the Associated Press Stylebook advises against it. In Canada, the stylebook published by The Canadian Press advises against it. Most British style guides do not mandate its use. The Economist Style Guide notes that most British writers only use it where necessary to avoid ambiguity. However, a few British style guides mandate it, most notably The Oxford Style Manual.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language notes that, “Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.” There are cases in which the use of the serial comma can avoid ambiguity and also instances in which its use can introduce ambiguity.

Easy Rules for Punctuation!
Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.
Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.
A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.
Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.
Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.
The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.
These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.

Now decide. Will you use the Oxford Comma? Comment below!

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