What Is The Oxford Comma And Why Is It Such A Big Deal?

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the oxford comma

The Oxford comma is either in, or out, depending on your faith in style guides

So, what is this Oxford comma thing, and what is all the fuss about?

In brief, what is also called the serial comma or Harvard comma, is a comma that is inserted before the last items in a list that are preceded by the word and, and sometimes the word or.

The debate about whether to use this comma or not has raged for years but it got a lot of attention due to a court case in the US.

The state law case revolved around one clause that defined when overtime pay was to be paid to truck drivers by Oakhurst Dairy.

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Source

At issue was the last part of the phrase.

With no comma before “distribution”, the clause could be interpreted to mean that the truck drivers, who had no part in “packing for shipment or distribution” should be paid because their job was “distribution” and not”packing for shipment or distribution”.

Anyway, the truck drivers won their case, and with it came the renewed interest in this little comma.

Probably because there was money suddenly attached to its use, which made it newsworthy.

It’s only a comma, I just add one when it feels right

comma rules

No other punctuation mark causes so much grief.

Adding a comma is not about feeling right, or when you think you would pause for breath in a sentence.

The use of the comma rules are quite, well, at least, reasonably clear according to the Oxford University Press Style Guide.

1. Use a pair of commas to surround a non-defining clause.

2. Do not use commas to surround a defining clause.

3. Use commas to surround a non-defining word or phrase.

4. Do not use a comma where defining information is used at the start of a sentence.

5. Do not use a comma to join two main clauses, or those linked by adverbs
or adverbial phrases.

6. Use a comma after an introductory adverb, adverbial phrase or subordinate clause; or use a pair of commas surrounding it if it is in the middle of a sentence.

7. Do not use a comma after a time-based adverbial phrase.

8. Use a comma between multiple qualitative adjectives (those which can be used in the comparative/superlative or modified with ‘very’, ‘quite’ etc).

9. Do not use a comma between multiple classifying adjectives: absolutes which either are or are not, such as ‘unique’, ‘English’, ‘black’ etc (although note that stylistically these can be modified).

10. Use a comma between items in a list. Note that there is no comma between the penultimate item in a list and ‘and’/‘or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’. However, always insert a comma in this position if it would help prevent confusion.
Source

Comma confusion?

comma rules

In fact, what is called the Oxford comma is very easy to use when compared to all the other comma rules.

I can manage rule number 10 because it is not confusing at all. But I have to admit that I cheat and use Grammarly to help me with rules one to nine.

One classic example of when the comma should be used is in this famous (infamous) book attribution.

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

This could easily be understood that the author’s mother is Ayn Rand and father is God. But one comma would prevent ambiguity.

To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Generally, if the last item in a list that is preceded by “and” is not to be associated with the item before “and”, the comma avoids any confusion.

So, which do you prefer? Would you like your green beans served with or without ice cream?

My menu for my dinner guests tonight will be beef stew, new potatoes, green beans and ice cream.

My menu for my dinner guests tonight will be beef stew, new potatoes, green beans, and ice cream.

But not everyone agrees with this pesky little comma

thank my dog

Let’s have a look at what some well-known style guides recommend when it comes to the Oxford comma.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2010), paragraph 6.18

“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma … should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced (sic) usage.”

The Times style manual[45]

“Avoid the so-called Oxford comma; say ‘he ate bread, butter and jam’ rather than ‘he ate bread, butter, and jam’.”

The New York Times stylebook[51]

“In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series.”

Australian Government Publishing Service‘s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers[53]

“A comma is used before andor, or etc. in a list when its omission might either give rise to ambiguity or cause the last word or phrase to be construed with a preposition in the preceding phrase. … Generally, however, a comma is not used before andor or etc. in a list.”

Buzzfeed

BuzzFeed uses the serial (aka Oxford) comma: e.g., We picked up cyan, magenta, yellow, and black balloons for the party.

Cambridge University Style Guide

An Oxford comma is one used before an “and” at the end of a list and is used to avoid ambiguity:

The family meal was soup, fish and chips, and ice cream.

The jumper is available in green, yellow, and black and white.

Associated Press Style Guide

The Serial Comma/Oxford Commas

The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma) is a comma that appears before “and” in a list. Omit the serial comma unless the sentence would be unclear without it.

I think that we have four for, and three against. So it is a close vote.

What comma rule should you use?

thank my dog

Due to the different stances that are taken by the style guides above, it is clearly up to you to decide.

However, when in doubt, or if you think your readers will be in doubt, use the extra comma. You don’t have to be a slave to it but rather look at its use as being a tool to improve your writing clarity.

In closing, I would like to say that I needed a lot of quiet time while I was researching and writing this blog post.

So I would like to thank the kids next door, my cleaning lady, my wife and dog for giving me some quiet time.

Um? No! No! No! No! Let me try that again, with a comma!

So I would like to thank the kids next door, my cleaning lady, my wife, and dog for giving me some quiet time.

Yes, I am definitely an Oxford comma proponent. Are you?

Do you want to know more?

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Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

One thought on “What Is The Oxford Comma And Why Is It Such A Big Deal?

  • I’m a ‘use it if the sentence would otherwise be confusing’ person, but if it is perfectly clear without it, I omit it.

    Reply

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