What is the Oxford Comma (And Where Do You Use It?)
Ah yes, the Oxford comma. There isn’t a more controversial piece of punctuation in the literary world.
Sure, some people will harp on exclamation marks. Others might believe semicolons are an abomination.
But if you ask some literary folks about their views on the Oxford comma, you better get comfortable and prepare yourself for a rant.
I won’t lie, I’ve gone on one or two of those rants myself. As an editor, I get very opinionated about punctuation. But I’m going to reign it in a little to answer some very important Oxford comma-related questions in this article.
We’ll be looking at:
- What the Oxford comma is
- Where it came from
- The benefits of this punctuation
- Why some people are haters
Without any further pause (get it? Because it’s a comma), let’s get to know the Oxford comma.
Definition of Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is placed after the penultimate item in a list. For those who don’t like using obnoxious terms like “penultimate,” that means the second-last item.
Here is the same sentence with and without an Oxford comma.
I love food, dogs and my family.
I love food, dogs, and my family.
We’ll dive further into the benefits of the serial comma, but many argue that this punctuation adds clarity to a sentence.
With the Oxford comma, you can tell I love three things:
- My family
Without it, you can infer the same thing, however, that’s how cannibals get away with saying they eat dogs and their family. There would be nothing technically wrong with using the comma after food to show the following terms are expanding on what “food” is.
English can be funky like that.
Who Uses the Oxford Comma?
If you’re an indie author, it will ultimately fall to you to decide whether you should include a serial comma or not.
For an author with a publisher or a writer working for a publication or company, that decision will be made for you by your in-house style guide or the style guide your company follows (i.e., AP, Chicago, etc.)
Examples of the Oxford Comma
We don’t want to get too far without ensuring we have a solid grasp on the Oxford comma. Here are some examples.
- She ate beans, toast, and tomatoes.
- My friend is deciding between a trip to London, Paris, or Madrid.
- An indie author must deal with writing, editing, formatting, publication, and marketing.
- A rainbow is made up of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
- I can’t tell if that was a person, an animal, or a monster in the woods.
Note that in the examples above—and in all uses of the serial comma—it only gets added before the last entry in a list, usually before a conjunction like and/or.
A comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses is not an Oxford comma (i.e, My best friend’s name is Stacy, and we go for ice cream every Friday). For more information about comma uses and other punctuation, check out this article.
Has the Oxford comma always been around? It feels like the controversy surrounding this punctuation comes in waves but, in reality, the serial comma isn’t new.
The conclusion of a three-year lawsuit in 2017 brought the serial comma into the limelight, but it’s been around for more than a century.
There’s a little confusion as to exact history of the Oxford comma, but it is largely attributed to three events:
In 1905, Horace Hart—who was the printer and controller of the Oxford University Press—wrote a style guide for employees working at the press. It included the use of the serial comma but didn’t give it a distinct name. In fact, it didn’t seem to be a noteworthy punctuation at all.
The term “Oxford comma” only came about in 1978 from The Oxford University Press: An Informal History by Peter Sutcliffe, when Sutcliffe gave it an official name.
But Sutcliffe actually attributes the proper introduction of what would be called the Oxford comma to F. Howard Collins, who published Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists in 1912.
Without doing a deep dive into the millions upon millions of books that have been published, it’s impossible to know how many authors support the use of the Oxford comma and how many oppose it.
That said, the serial comma—despite its British name—is much more common in American writing than in Britain, Australia, South Africa, or Canada. Americans use the Oxford comma more often, while writers in other countries use it when omitting it would cause confusion.
We also see that academic and journal articles tend to include the serial comma (likely to make sure data and results are presented clearly), while journalists tend to omit this punctuation (probably due to the limited space in newspapers ).
Now we’re going to talk about why you should use the Oxford comma. You might already be thinking about some of the reasons to include this punctuation, but let’s set the record straight.
Above all else, the Oxford comma provides clarity to a list. When you include it, this comma makes it pretty clear that each item is individualized and not part of another list entry.
As writers, the last thing we want is to break a reader’s immersion. Making them pause to re-read a sentence or try to figure out an ambiguous passage will rip them right out of your story.
Consistency is another big reason to use the Oxford comma. We can break this benefit up into two parts.
Regional consistency - If your readers are primarily in the United States, they often expect to see a serial comma. While its omission might not be a big deal to you, it can be jarring to those expecting it. If you or the bulk of your readers are from a region where this punctuation is common, it’s best to use it.
Punctuation consistency - Another piece of punctuation used in lists is the semicolon. If your list items are complex or entire phrases (which may include commas), you use a semicolon to separate them. This includes a semicolon after the penultimate entry—there are no exceptions in this case. So why not be consistent across all your lists?
As I’ve been saying this whole time, there’s an entire faction of Oxford comma haters who refuse to add this punctuation into their lists.
This disparity in the use of the serial comma has even extended into a multi-million dollar legal settlement just a handful of years ago.
For such a simple piece of punctuation, the Oxford comma is awfully controversial.
Even though I am a proponent of the serial comma, I can see some of the other side’s justification for leaving it out. Here are a few of those reasons.
Just rephrase - If I say “I watched a video about the connection between the strippers, Santa and the Easter Bunny,” you could argue an Oxford comma would be helpful after Santa to ensure no one thinks the strippers were Santa and a human-sized rabbit. But simply rearranging a list can eliminate ambiguity. “I watched a video about the connection between Santa, the Easter Bunny and the strippers.”
It can create ambiguity - Sometimes, the Oxford comma does the opposite of what it’s meant to do. Consider “I want to visit the prisoner, my uncle, and my mom.” According to grammar rules, this could mean I want to visit three separate people (the prisoner AND my uncle AND my mom) or it could mean I want to visit my uncle, who is the prisoner, and my mom.
Space economy - No, not the economics of outer space but how much room you have for your written piece. We mentioned this above when talking about journalists. When the space your writing takes up is so important, every character can count.
Regional consistency - Flipping around one of the benefits, using the serial comma can hurt you if you’re writing somewhere that doesn’t usually use it or if your audience isn’t used to seeing it. Hopefully this article has helped you realize when and where it makes sense to use an Oxford comma
Impact of the Oxford Comma
I’m not going to pretend that the adoption of the Oxford comma has changed the world. What I would like to point out is a recent court ruling that involved the serial comma… one that resulted in a $5 million payout.
In O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, truck drivers were seeking compensation for overtime hours spent distributing goods. The issue was that Oakhurst Dairy’s policy claimed the "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of certain goods were exempt from overtime compensation in accordance with a legal statute.
Your keen eye might notice the lack of comma after shipment. Thus, it was argued that distribution was not an exemption to overtime, but packing for either shipment or distribution was. This case also noted that distribution, rather than distributing, was different from the suffix -ing for all the other exempt work.
Over the course of three years with an appeal to the First Circuit, the judge ruled in favor of the drivers and stated that distributing the goods was not exempted from overtime pay.
In addition to the $5 million settlement, the law was revised, opting for semicolons instead of commas. It now states that "canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing" certain goods is exempt from overtime pay.
Will You Use the Oxford Comma?
Authors can decide for themselves if they use the Oxford comma. Sure, you might have a publisher who includes it, but their editors will catch that. And, if there’s a style guide you should be following, you’ll adopt the right punctuation over time.
For indie authors or first-time writers, the choice is yours. I hope this article has given you some insight into this surprisingly decisive piece of punctuation.
The serial comma is just one tool in your author toolkit, though. To be a successful writer, you need to master punctuation, grammar, pacing, character arcs, plot structures, and so much more.
I know, it sounds a little daunting.
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Now you’re all set to write great stories, use proper punctuation, and choose your side in the great Oxford comma war.
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