The “Oxford” Comma (Part 2 of the Comma Series)

Oxford Comma!Before I start my post, I want to apologize for a lack of posts over the past few days. I had my commencement ceremony this week and will be starting graduate school this Monday; I’m sure you can imagine how hectic these past few days have been.

In what-seems-like-a-decade-ago, I wrote Part 1 of the Comma Series. That post covered the use of commas with coordinating conjunctions. It can be found here. Today’s section of the Comma Series will illustrate the “Oxford Comma.” I know I promised Adverbial Conjunctions, but I’m pretty tired at the moment and am not up to the task of teaching adverbial conjunctions! So if you don’t know what an “Oxford Comma” is, make sure you keep reading!

What is the “Oxford Comma?”

Well its proper name is “serial comma,” but I think “Oxford comma” sounds much better–don’t you? :-D This comma is relatively controversial because there’s no real rule on whether or not you should use it. In some cases, it can help you. In others, it can hinder your meaning. Let’s see what it is.

When listing items, you have to put some sort of conjunction in to connect them. This conjunction is most frequently “and” or “or.” You may place a comma after the last item that comes before the conjunction. For example, “I need to go get apples, grapes, oranges(,) and pears.” See that comma in the parenthesis? That’s the comma I’m talking about.

Now what?

Well let’s look at the above example, removing the comma this time. “I need to go get apples, grapes, oranges and pears.” This one isn’t TOO confusing, but let’s look at how these items break down with and without the comma:

No comma: I need to get (apples,) (grapes,) (oranges and pears.)
Comma: I need to get (apples,) (grapes,) (oranges,) and (pears.)

Notice in my first example, oranges and pears are lumped together. This could mean a mix of oranges and pears (like a fruit cup or fruit salad). In the second example, the oranges and pears are separated into individual items.

Let’s look at a much more ambiguous example: “I like oatmeal, gingerbread, peanut butter and jelly and chocolate chip cookies.” Notice I omitted the comma here. Let’s see how this one appears:

No comma: I like (oatmeal,) (gingerbread,) (peanut butter and jelly and chocolate chip) cookies.
Comma: I like (oatmeal,) (gingerbread,) (peanut butter and jelly,) and (chocolate chip) cookies.

For this example, the comma is pretty important. The comma is controversial because in some cases, the comma can confuse the sentence and in other cases it can clear ambiguity.

Final thoughts

The serial comma can be somewhat tricky. You only need it when you’re listing three or more items. I generally use it all the time unless it makes the sentence difficult to understand. Think about how your sentence breaks down with and without the comma, and then choose accordingly. Good luck!


Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.

9 Comments

  1. This is humorous to me, as just a month or so back, some friends and I were having a discussion about this same damn thing (wow, we ARE boring). In any matter, what the discussions boiled down to was, “Yeah, some jackasses are saying you don’t need the last comma in lists of items anymore.” and me responding with, “This is just going to lead to trouble.” That vast majority of the time, it’s far more clear to use the comma before the conjunction.

    Also, I love your use of parenthesis to separate the different groupings, it’s a GREAT visual tool

  2. When I took journalism classes in high school, we were told that it’s proper for newspapers to omit the final comma in the series. They (teachers/textbooks) said it was appropriate to use the final comma when writing a paper for an English class or similar, but that professional articles don’t use them.

    Any idea if this is still accurate?

  3. That’s a great point. In journalism, it’s much more common to omit the comma because of space/character restraints in print media. Think about those tiny, narrow columns that The New York Times and other papers use–that one comma can take up a lot of space. It’s almost like an unwritten “rule” to not use the comma in professional writing because of these restrictions. In academic and formal writing, you won’t necessarily have those constraints, and thus it is more common to use the comma.

  4. I like the “oxford” comma and use it almost always. BTW your oatmeal sentence without the Oxford comma could also be read, “I like (oatmeal,) (gingerbread,) (peanut butter) and (jelly and chocolate chip) cookies.

    It’s only our familiarity with these food items that creates the tendency to read “peanut butter and jelly” and “chocolate chip cookies” :)

  5. True–context creates the confusion. Someone who had never heard of a PB&J wouldn’t necessarily get the confusion. Oddly enough, I read an article today that Oxford is officially doing away with the serial comma except for occasions in which it clarifies a situation. I love my comma and was so sad to read that!

  6. Pingback: R.I.P. Oxford Comma « Link to Language

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