Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ins and Outs of the Oxford Comma

Jessica Nelson

If any of you quirked an eyebrow when you read this title and asked yourself, “What is an ‘Oxford comma’?” don’t worry. The first time someone mentioned the Oxford comma to me, I had to ask for an explanation, because I had never heard of it before.

The Oxford comma is what most non-grammar-nerds know as the serial comma. That’s the comma that comes before the “and” in a list. (FUN FACT: I recently learned it is called the Oxford comma because it was primarily used by the printers, editors, and readers at the Oxford University Press. Its use is first mentioned—as far as my research has shown me—in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide). Here’s an example of the Oxford comma:

My favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and Mary Shelley.

(Not really, but you get the idea.)

Now, I could omit the Oxford comma and say:

My favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Mary Shelley.

The advantage of the Oxford comma is its ability to clear up ambiguous sentences. I know when I read a sentence that contains a list and there isn’t an Oxford comma, I tend to pair the last two items together, the same way most people pair “peanut butter and jelly.” We don’t always think of them as two separate items, but as things that go together. Then, I always expect there to be another item to the list, because, for me, the list isn’t over until I’ve seen “, and.”

Let me give you an example.

For lunch, Mrs. Jones put out a veggie platter, milk and peanut butter sandwiches.

The way I read that, without the Oxford comma, the sandwiches are made of bread, peanut butter, and milk. That just sounds gross—and soggy.

By adding the Oxford comma, it becomes clear that milk is a separate item offered (hopefully, served in some kind of cup). For that reason, I am a proponent of the Oxford comma.

Some style guides mandate the use of the Oxford comma and others prohibit it. This Wikipedia page has a section of “Recommendations by Style Guides” (Section Four, if you’re using the hotlinks in the Contents at the top page) that might be helpful if you aren’t sure if you need to use it. Here’s a quick hint: the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Chicago Manual of Style—the preferred style for fiction writing—and The Elements of Style all support the use of the Oxford comma.

If you don’t know if the style guide you are using encourages or discourages the use of the Oxford comma, or—if you are like me—you don’t know which style guide you are using, make a decision about whether or not you want to use the Oxford comma, then do so consistently. However, if you have chosen not to use the Oxford comma, be sure to read all your list-containing sentences carefully. If the clarity of the sentence is ever in doubt, add the Oxford comma. It can’t hurt.

What is your stance in this heated debate? We’re curious to know. Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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