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The Oxford Comma Controversy

Oxford Comma

Of all the marks used for punctuation, none seems as divisive, controversial, or maligned as the Oxford comma. For all its many ardent supporters, the Oxford comma has almost as many zealous opponents insisting that it be stricken from the page. Put together a group of well-mannered, grammatically gifted writers, mention the Oxford comma, and watch the syntax hit the fan.

A Comma By Any Other Name…

The Oxford comma is so named because it is the house style used by the editors and printers of the Oxford University Press. It is also known as the “serial comma” and the “Harvard comma” since it’s also the preferred style of Harvard University Press. This is the comma used in a sentence before the coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor) at the end of a list of three or more items.

In American English, most style guides recommend using the Oxford comma. So where does the controversy come from? In an effort to save space and pack in more news per square inch, the Associated Press and journalistic style guidelines advise against using the serial comma. (Seriously, how much space are you saving by removing one little comma?)

Ironically and surprisingly enough, the Oxford comma is not used in Oxford University’s homeland, the United Kingdom—or in Canada or Australia.

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It’s Here, It’s Clear: Use The Oxford Comma

When a sentence includes a series of people, places, or things, using the Oxford comma makes it clear just how many items you are listing and resolves any potential confusion or ambiguity. Also, without the Oxford comma, you may inadvertently suggest a connection between the last two items that does not actually exist.

Example: I owe my success to my parents, the president and the vice president.

Are you talking about two people: your mother and father, who also happen to be the president and vice president? Or do you mean your two parents, the president, and the vice president—a total of four people?

To eliminate any misunderstanding about your parentage, the sentence should be written as: I owe my success to my parents, the president, and the vice president.

Another example: The elephants, Winston Churchill and King George boarded the train.

Well, what do we have here: two elephants with very pretentious monikers; or a pair of pachyderms and two respected British gentlemen? Perhaps England should not be so quick to dismiss the value of the Oxford comma!

Keep in mind that if the last element in a sentence is a pair joined by and, you should use an Oxford comma before the coordinating conjunction that precedes the pair.

An example with pears…and a pair: My favorite breakfast is fresh pears, pancakes, syrup, and bacon and eggs.

Without the Oxford comma, you would end up with syrup all over your bacon and eggs.

Since it always makes sense to make sense when you’re writing—don’t hesitate to use the Oxford comma!

For more comma information, check out our related articles:

How To Use Commas After Introductory Phrases

Seven Fundamental Comma Rules

Serial Commas, Ellipses, and Em Dashes

Free Grammar And Usage Tool Kit

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Are you for or against using the Oxford comma?


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8 Responses to The Oxford Comma Controversy

  1. DoD manuals concur with AP Style, they do not use Oxford commas.

    Before someone acts superior about “the rules,” it’s important he/she researches to see if there’s room for debate in some circles.

    I promise if you don’t do as your employer wishes (Journalism, DoD), you’re out of a job. That’s a rule you can rely on in any situation.

  2. As a college English professor, I insist my students use the Oxford comma for all the reason stated in your essay. I have heard my students refer to me as the comma professor. Oh well. I’ve heard worse.

  3. As someone who has done a fair bit of legal writing, I can not afford, or tolerate, unintended ambiguity. I regard the Oxford comma as an old friend. I have somehow been given to understand that the controversy regarding this use of the comma arose in the context of the inter-school rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge.

    Neither that tale, nor the one involving the Associated Press makes much sense, but at least the Oxford v. Cambridge tale has some charm to it.

  4. With the number of books to choose from in the global marketplace, why obscure your meaning? Temptation to slam the cover on you and start reading somebody else’s work is ever-present, and even your most generous reader may give in and throw your prose at the wall if it’s turned into unintelligible mish-mosh by the lack of an Oxford comma. Why take the chance?

  5. Having worked in the PR department, on the newspaper, and in the marketing department of a top banking trade association who used AP style for “all” of its writing, I, too, was “required” to use AP style. After 15 years, it became ingrained in me and, admittedly, it will take some time to overcome. Having been a PR proofreader and, later, a junior copy editor for that company’s newspaper, I came to know AP Style pretty well. For that reason, I must correct an “implied” inaccuracy about AP Style made at the end of this article with regard to its rule for commas used in a complex series. The article implies that AP Style would “not” use a “serial” comma before “and bacon and eggs” in the sentence “My favorite breakfast is fresh pears, pancakes, syrup, and bacon and eggs.” This is incorrect. AP Style follows Oxford Style exactly in this instance and in all instances of comma use in a complex series. Here is another example of a complex series in which AP Style would would use the “serial” comma: “I must bring my mother to the doctor, go to the grocery, and pick up my son at school.” This has been the rule in every AP Stylebook edition I used from 1993 through 2011 — the last edition I used with my former company. Despite the faults of AP Style, credit must be given to AP in this instance.

  6. I’m all for the Oxford comma when it helps to clarify meaning. I prefer to drop it from a simple list, where there is no ambiguity. I think the pear/pair example looks goofy, since I usually think of bacon and eggs along side each other, whereas the syrup belongs together with the pancakes. Two improvements might be:
    My favorite breakfast is fresh pears, pancakes, syrup, bacon and eggs.
    My favorite breakfast is fresh pears, bacon, eggs, and pancakes with syrup.

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