Grammar Guide: The Oxford Comma - Yes or No?

If there is one thing writers like to debate it’s the use of the Oxford Comma. No one, not even style books, can agree if the Oxford comma should be used, or if it should die a quick death.


What exactly is the Oxford comma? Also called the serial comma, this is the last comma used when creating a list. For example, in this sentence I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The comma placed before the final element in the list (right before the word AND) is the Oxford comma. Proponents of using the Oxford comma argue that it needs to be used for clarity. This is the camp I fall into.

The use of the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity in the elements of a list. This is especially true when you are using compound words, such as peanut butter, or two ideas combined in a list.

The following sentence demonstrates this confusion. The choice of sandwiches are tuna, ham and cheese and roast beef. How many choices of sandwiches are offered? Is it two, three, or four? If I use an Oxford comma, it is immediately clear that there are three sandwiches: 1) tuna; 2) ham and cheese; 3) roast beef. In this sentence you may say that it is obvious that there are three sandwiches to choose from. There is ambiguity in the sentence, however. If you wrote it The choice of sandwiches are tuna, ham and cheese, and roast beef it is clear, without any question, that there are three sandwiches.

But what do American style books say about the Oxford comma? The answer is that there is no consensus on its use. The Chicago style book says that the Oxford comma should be used in almost all cases, whereas the AP style book says that you should generally skip using the Oxford comma except in cases where it provides clarity.

I remember years ago, an elementary school teacher asked me about its use. Apparently, the school at which he taught was urging teachers to discourage the overuse of commas in the students’ writing. He was instructed to not teach the use of the Oxford comma. I think the generation who was taught in this way adds to the misunderstanding of what exactly the Oxford comma is, and how and when it should be used.

I love the Oxford comma. Count me a fan of the Chicago style book. I like the clarity of its use. I’d rather not have a ham and cheese and roast beef sandwich.


 

Jen Haertling loves teaching about English and writing. She is a former English teacher with a degree in writing. Jen is currently pursuing an MFA in the field.

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