The Oxford comma. Another tiny squiggle that’s somehow hotly debated among English speakers. People either vehemently defend it or wholly shrug it off. As Grammar Guru, I’m here to explain why I cherish, defend, and celebrate it. There are many hilarious instances when the Oxford comma provides much-needed clarity — and one time its omission won some workers $5 million. Read (and watch) our guide to the Oxford comma, and tell us your stance!
WHAT is an Oxford comma?
- The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma, the series comma, or the Harvard comma.
- It’s a comma placed in a series of three or more items.
- It’s placed directly before the final conjunction (the word and or the word or).
- It is used to separate the list’s items in a clear and unambiguous way.
- Did you catch the example in the first bullet point?
WHERE did it come from?
Most attribute it to Horace Hart, a printer at Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915. Horace wrote a style guide for the press employees in 1905, but he didn’t call it the Oxford comma then. It remained nameless until Peter Sutcliff referred to the Oxford comma in his 1978 book about the history of the Oxford University Press, attributing the introduction of the comma to F. Howard Collins, who wrote about it in his 1912 book. If you’re thinking the origin story is as confusing as the comma itself, you’re correct.
Let’s check out some examples.
- Before bed, I wash my face, brush my teeth, and take out my contacts.
- Do you want rice, potatoes, or salad with your meal?
- Take out the trash, load the suitcases, and check the lock before you leave!
- On vacation, we eat, relax, sleep, and repeat.
When is it truly necessary?
There are many instances where it’s truly necessary to employ the Oxford comma to avoid strangeness and confusion.
- CONFUSING: We’re headed to Tennessee to see my parents, Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton.
- BETTER: We’re headed to Tennessee to see my parents, Garth Brooks, and Dolly Parton.
- WHY? My parents are not Garth and Dolly. I will see all four people in Tennessee.
This example needs the comma:
- CONFUSING: Your flavor choices are mango, blueberry and strawberry and banana.
- BETTER: Your flavor choices are mango, blueberry, and strawberry and banana.
- WHY? Strawberry and banana is a single flavor in the list. The sentence looks better and is clearer with the second comma.
This one, too:
- CONFUSING: You will get to meet Connie, an Olympic gymnast and a sculptor.
- BETTER: You will get to meet Connie, an Olympic gymnast, and a sculptor.
- WHY? Unless Connie herself is both a gymnast and a sculptor, we need to delineate the three separate people with a comma.
The $5 Million Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma got a lot of press when one comma (or lack thereof) won dairy delivery drivers in Maine a $5 million class-action lawsuit. One of Maine’s state laws didn’t have the comma where it desperately needed one. It said that “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” certain products are exempt from overtime payments.
Without an Oxford comma, packing for shipment or distribution could be read as packing for shipment or packing for distribution.” This is much different than [packing for shipment] or [distribution]. By placing an Oxford comma before or distribution, it would have been clear that distribution was its own separate act. The drivers were performing the latter task, so they won the suit.
Who’s FOR it?
Lots of people on dating apps and social media LOVE the Oxford comma. It’s become a niche “thing” to claim that you’re an Oxford common enthusiast or to purchase a Team Oxford Comma mug on Etsy … so much so that GQ wrote a great piece on this very topic. Loving the Oxford comma is telling of a person’s style, sense of order, and attention to detail.
MOST style guides — the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name three big ones — say to use it always.
Who’s AGAINST it?
The Associated Press (AP) style guide, the Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (*GASP*) the University of Oxford style guide itself, say to use the Oxford comma only when the sentence really needs it.
Those who shirk them do so because they think that the sentence flows better without the extra comma. There are times when short, simple lists could stand without the last comma, but why not just stay consistent and use it 100% of the time?
In keeping with this logic, StyleBlueprint has decided to reinstate the Oxford comma moving forward. We hope you will consider, contemplate, and ponder the topic until you’re a fan, too.
Freshen up on Grammar Guru’s previous episodes!
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Apart vs. A Part
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Fewer vs. Less
Grammar Shape-Up Series: “Couldn’t Care Less”
Lay vs. Lie: Are You Using Them Correctly?
Apostrophes: Are You Over- Or Underusing Them?
FYI: The Acronyms You Need To Know
5 Words You’re Probably Using Incorrectly
3 Rules You’re Likely Breaking
Everyday vs. Every Day & Other Tricky Word Pairs
Grammar Guru: Prepositions CAN End a Sentence. Sometimes.
Grammar Guru: Are You Getting These 5 Phrases Wrong?
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