The Oxford comma, also known as the Harvard comma or the serial comma, is quite a controversial item. Why? Well, that all depends on what side of the debate you’re on…
What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma is the very last comma used in a sentence that lists three or more items. For example, here is a sentence that includes the Oxford comma:
I went to the store and bought plants, plants, plants, and more plants.
The same sentence with the Oxford comma removed would read:
I went to the store and bought plants, plants, plants and more plants.
Plants aside, you’re probably asking what the big deal is. Why is this seemingly miniscule grammatical change such a nuisance? Well, it generally feeds into personal preference over anything else.
Why is it called the Oxford comma?
The comma itself was invented in the 15th century as a way to separate items in lists within a sentence. The Oxford University Press included the Oxford comma (though it didn’t have a name at the time) in their style guide and has never wavered in their stance that it should always be included in that type of sentence. Hence, the name Oxford comma was bestowed.
what do the other style guides say?
Most writing style guides differ in their interpretations of spelling and grammatical rules. The rules surrounding the Oxford comma are no exception. They may very well be the most debated rules in the books.
Different style guides exist in different countries, regions and publications.
Chicago style recommends the use of the Oxford comma in almost all instances. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Canadian Press Stylebook both advise against using it. Others are neither here nor there and suggest using the Oxford comma in sentences that may not make sense or could potentially take on a different meaning otherwise.
For example, the following sentence can read differently with and without the Oxford comma:
I took my cats, Aang and Korra out on to the balcony today.
Anyone who knows me would be well aware that my cats names are Aang and Korra and would interpret the sentence correctly. Someone who didn’t know my cats names though, may assume that Aang and Korra are entirely different beings depending on whether they thought I was, or whether they were, an Oxford comma user. For instance, they may read the sentence like this if they thought I’d blatantly left out the Oxford comma:
I took my cats, Aang, and Korra out on to the balcony today.
How is that person to know whether Aang and Korra are the name of my cats, or if they’re simply separate items in the list? Does that make sense?
Now, I’m generally in favour of leaving the Oxford comma out as I feel it can interrupt the flow of sentences, BUT in cases where it may lead to confusion, I’ll generally sneak one in. The downside of this is that it can lead to issues with consistency.
Honestly, if you’re not a student who may be marked down for incorrect usage of the Oxford comma or someone who works for a specific publication with strict rules, I say do whatever feels best for you. As long as the sentence makes sense, it’s the writer’s choice.
The Oxford comma in the spotlight
The Oxford comma has popped up in many pop culture references and mainstream media articles in recent years. Here are just a few examples…
Vampire Weekend – Oxford Comma
American band, Vampire Weekend, released a song titled ‘Oxford Comma’ which, I’ll admit, is more about not giving a shit about anything than the Oxford comma itself. It’s a tune though.
The Maine Oxford comma dispute
Meanwhile, in 2017, a class-action lawsuit was filed against a dairy company in Maine. They’d left out an Oxford comma, resulting in a line of a working contract being misinterpreted by three truck drivers in their employment. The lawsuit was settled, leaving the employees with a hefty $5mil between them. It just goes to show, a simple comma can be worth a fortune, if you’re pedantic enough.
And that, my friends, is the story of the Oxford comma. What’s your Oxford comma preference? Let me know in the comments!