Imagine you’re heading to a party and your friend sends you a text: “Bring John, a magician and a guitarist!” You’re excited: You’ve never met John, but he must be quite a character, having so many talents. So, you pick him up and head to the party. But once you walk through the door, all you get are blank stares of disappointment. You’re dumbfounded until you realize that the night’s magic show and band performance are ruined just because you misunderstood your friend’s message. Enter the Oxford comma, a tiny little comma that has caused a whole bunch of ruckus in the world of grammar. In this article, we’ll look at the Oxford comma, its use across the English-speaking world, and why grammar nerds either hate or love it.
WHAT IS THE OXFORD COMMA?
The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is the last comma in a list and is always put before the main conjunction in a list (usually and, or, or nor). Here’s an example of a list containing the Oxford comma: “I had a great time at the party. I hung out with John, a singer, and a magician.” The Oxford comma is the comma placed directly after “singer.” Without the Oxford comma, the list would look like this: “I had a great time at the party. I hung out with John, a singer and a magician.” The use of the Oxford comma is quite commonly used in the US but is much less common in other English-speaking countries (like the UK and Australia). And while the Oxford comma might seem like little more than a line on a page, it’s the cause of one of the biggest divides among grammar nerds ever.
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
Grammar fans can be very particular about their use of the Oxford comma. For some, the Oxford comma can help avoid confusion in lists. Here’s an example: Imagine you get this message from a guy/girl you just started dating after you ask them about their interests: “I love walking my dogs, Janis Joplin and Keith Richards.” Without an Oxford comma, you’d probably be pretty excited to meet this guy/gal rockstar dogs. With the Oxford comma, however, you’d immediately understand that their dogs aren’t named Janis Joplin and Keith Richards. Instead, he/she was listing 3 different things they like: “I like walking my dogs, Janis Joplin, and Keith Richards.”
For others, however, the Oxford comma is unnecessary and clutters up a piece of text. Journalists, for example, who are often concerned about space and superfluous grammar, tend to shy away from using the Oxford comma. Instead, they argue that confusing lists (like the one above) can simply be reordered in order to avoid any confusion. Here’s how someone against the use of the Oxford comma would write the above sentence: “I love Janis Joplin, Keith Richards and walking my dogs.”
For years, the use of the Oxford comma has been somewhat of a grammatical grey area. Major style guides and grammatical institutions cannot agree on whether or not the comma should be used. In the US, for example, the MLA, the Chicago Style Manual, and the US Government Publishing Office all recommend using the Oxford comma. The APA Style Guide, on the other hand, doesn’t recommend using the Oxford comma. Outside of the US, most style guides in other English-speaking countries do not support the use of the serial comma, except the Oxford University Press.
WHY NOT USE THE OXFORD COMMA?
Style guides and grammar nerds against the use of the Oxford comma usually adhere to one main argument: They believe the comma is unnecessary, seeing that the main conjunction in a sentence should be enough to identify a separate identity in a list. Where there’s confusion, the author should review the list and reorder its entities to make sure it’s clear they are referring to separate things. Journalists also dislike the Oxford comma, usually arguing it makes text appear cluttered.
Finally, some people also argue that the Oxford comma can cause confusion on its own. Let’s imagine you get the following text from a friend telling you to bring some last-minute things to their party: “Bring Mariana, a singer, and a cat.” Opposers of the Oxford comma sometimes argue that, in this kind of sentence, the comma could insinuate that Mariana is also a singer, rather than a separate entity.
SHOULD YOU USE THE OXFORD COMMA?
While there’s been a lot of discussion about the use of the Oxford comma, there is still no clear rule about whether to use it or not. In fact, grammar institutions generally agree that its use is optional and up to the author. Rather than stressing whether or not to use the comma, most style guides just stress you be consistent either way. That means that every individual piece of text should either consistently use the comma, or consistently avoid it. So, whether or not you choose to use the comma is up to you. Just make sure you’re consistent either way!