Grammar

The Oxford Comma Battle May Never End

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If you ever want to rile up a room full of writers, copyeditors and grammar enthusiasts, just ask about whether they prefer the Oxford comma.

You’ll receive a range of answers when you start a debate about the good old Oxford Comma. Some insist that it should always be used, no matter what. Others say it has its place, but it’s not necessary every single time.

First things first: Consider these examples:

  • I bought milk, eggs and bacon at the grocery store last night.
  • I bought milk, eggs, and bacon at the grocery store last night.

The two sentences may look identical. But if you look closely, you’ll see one tiny difference. The second sentence has one extra comma between eggs and bacon. That final comma, which comes before the next-to-last item in a list and the and, is called the Oxford Comma. You may also hear it called the Serial Comma.

Its name comes from the Oxford University Press, where for over a century it has been standard in the Oxford Style Manual.

But not everyone mandates its use.

I rely primarily on the Associated Press Stylebook when I write on this blog. I try to use AP Style here because it’s easier; it’s what I use in my real job. AP Style dictates that you should use the comma when it clarifies things, but otherwise, it’s not necessary.

In a series of tweets back in 2017, it clarified its stance:

So when will not using a comma mix people up? AP gave examples for us to ponder.

This sentence, it says, is clear without the comma:

  • The flag is red, white and blue.

And they’re right. It would be difficult to somehow misinterpret that sentence. But then it offered this example:

  • I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

It shows a comma is preferred before the last item in this list because ham and eggs is a singular food item. Because it contains an and on its own, the Oxford Comma eliminates confusion about why there are two ands in there.

Grammarly, however, offers a better example:

  • I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

Most of us would clearly understand that we’re looking at a list of people. Presumably, the person is talking about two parents, a pop singer and a fictional character. But if the second and third in the list were both real and less well-known, it might be different. Consider this:

  • I love my parents, Harvey and Lisa.

This sentence could be confusing unless the writer’s parents happen to be named Harvey and Lisa. But if the speaker loves Harvey, Lisa and his or her parents, then the Oxford Comma would have made that clear without having to change the order of those listed.

If you ask me, I definitely side with AP Style. In simple lists, I think the Oxford Comma looks redundant. I see it, much of the time, as unnecessary. So I usually omit it unless I think the sentence is more clear with it.

But for whatever reason, some feel a lot of passion about that silly little comma. The Daily Tarheel recently ran a poll about it.

Almost 81% said they were “for” the Oxford Comma. I’d call that a majority.

I’m not against it per se. I just don’t see it as critical every single time. So that’s why you’ll sometimes see a list without that extra comma.

I hope that’s not some kind of deal-breaker for you. But if it is, I might suggest that you’re more interested in grammatical legalism than clarity, and I’d have to take issue with that.

2 Comments

  1. This is never a deal-breaker for me, but I love my English to be proper um…English English! This why I spell colour, realise, etc.. including the Oxford comma. But a deal-breaker? That is extreme. Intelligent friends are a prize and I keep ‘em no matter what!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.