Grammar, punctuation and the Oxford comma
I’ll come right out and say it. I hate the Oxford comma. It’s yucky. I feel like a three-year-old having a tantrum but, my friends, the unsightly thing hurts my eyes.
Will I use an Oxford comma when I’m writing for you? Yes, if you want me to.
In Australia, Canada and South Africa, the Oxford comma tends not to be used in non-academic publications unless it’s really needed to clear up ambiguity. As an Australian, that’s the approach I take. Unless the people I’m writing for are diehard Oxford comma fans.
What is an Oxford comma?
Named thusly because it’s part of the Oxford University Press style guide, the Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma. Some Americans call it the Harvard comma, because, like the remake of international movies, they always have to have their own version…
It’s a comma inserted between the second-last term and the conjunction in a list of three of more items. What the?!? Maybe it’s better to give you an example.
With the Oxford comma: beer, wine, and gin Without the Oxford comma: beer, wine and gin
Some of my favourite drinks, in case you’re buying. 😉
You’ve probably seen both versions used. Or you may not have even noticed. Most likely you don’t give a hoot. I do though. Writers care about such things.
That old ambiguity chestnut
Members of Team Oxford Comma argue that it resolves ambiguity. I concede that it does. Check out these examples.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Byron and Shelley. This book is dedicated to my parents, Byron, and Shelley.
The second sentence clarifies that my parents are not Byron and Shelley. But you could just as easily reword the sentence.
This book is dedicated to Byron, Shelley and my parents.
You could also just use your common sense. Of course my parents aren’t Byron and Shelley. Both writers died long before I was born.
The Oxford comma can even add ambiguity.
I painted a picture of my father, a famous guitarist and Dali. I painted a picture of my father, a famous guitarist, and Dali.
The additional comma makes it look like my father is a famous guitarist when this is actually a list of three separate people.
Reasons against the Oxford comma
- It’s ugly, especially in a simple list of three words.
- It takes up space. That’s why journalists tend not to use it, since article space is at a premium.
- It adds unnecessary clutter for the reader’s eyes.
- It adds as much ambiguity as it resolves.
Style guide recommendations
Let’s see what the style guides have to say about the Oxford comma. After all, they know far more about grammar and punctuation than me.
|Style guide||Origin||Oxford comma fan?|
|The Australian Government Publishing Service’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers||Australia||no|
|The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing||Canada||no|
|The Cambridge Guide to English Usage||UK||no|
|The Economist Style Guide||UK||no|
|Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage||UK||sometimes|
|The Guardian Style Guide||UK||no|
|MHRA Style Guide||UK||yes|
|New Hart’s Rules||UK||sometimes|
|The Oxford Style Manual||UK||yes|
|The Times style manual||UK||no|
|University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate Writing and Style Guide||UK||no|
|AAMT Book of Style for Medical Transcription||USA||yes|
|AIP Style Manual, American Institute of Physics||USA||yes|
|The AP Stylebook||USA||no|
|American Medical Association Manual of Style||USA||yes|
|Chicago Manual of Style||USA||yes|
|CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers||USA||yes|
|The Elements of Style||USA||yes|
|Garner’s Modern English Usage||USA||yes|
|MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing||USA||yes|
|The New York Times Stylebook||USA||no|
|Plain English Handbook||USA||yes|
|Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association||USA||yes|
|United States Government Printing Office’s Style Manual||USA||yes|
|Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage: A Guide||USA||yes|
It looks like there’s no hard and fast rule. It’s simply a discretionary style preference. So unless I’m writing an academic piece, it’s needed to clear up ambiguity or my client prefers it, count the Oxford comma out of my writing.
Want to know more about my copywriting services? With or without the Oxford comma, the time I save you by doing your writing can be invested back into your business.