The Oxford comma

Strunk and White call it the serial comma., but I can’t think ‘serial’ without finishing it with ‘…..killer’. So the discovery that this speciality comma is aka the Oxford comma has strangely captured my attention. It has also given the serial comma the proper attention and respect it deserves.

Who cares about the Oxford comma? Obviously not the musicians  in Vampire Weekend. Why should anyone  else care? Such a seemingly insignificant comma, it looks just like its country cousins, but it has a noble purpose in life….that of minimizing ambiguity. I’m all for that. Clarity, conviction, and confidence that you’ve communicated exactly what you intended.

I don’t know how I could have overlooked this fascinating gramatical mark in my studies. Must be that I wasn’t travelling in the right grammar circles.  For anyone who needs a refresher, here is the Oxford comma defined:

The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items.apple-raisin-pie

As in: “For dessert, we have peach, apple, and raisin pie.” The Oxford comma separates the apple and the raisin, giving you a choice between 3 pies. So what’s the big deal? If you take out the last comma, you might be surprised to find raisins mixed into your apple pie.

Or: Her mail indicated she was taking classes in creative writing, science fiction and Elvish. Now is that two courses? Or three? This sentence definitely needs an Oxford comma. Not all item lists do if the meaning is obvious.

Some newspaper style guides are apparently opposed to its use. Maybe they consider it superflous, excessive, and redundant? It is a space-saving decision? I suppose that there could be an argument for the elimination of the Oxford comma, if someone could determine how many trees were saved. After weighing all the pros and cons, I am definitely a fan, but not slavishly. To live up to its noble objective, it should be used when it fulfills its purpose: increasing clarity….minimizing ambiguity.

 This humble little comma actually has quite a devoted following of fans.  There are two Facebook groups dedicated to the Oxford comma, one know as The Oxford Comma and the other, “Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma”.  

Why does the name Oxford Comma intrigue me so?  Maybe because I love my English roots, the Queen, and a good British accent.

Other references to the Oxford (also known as the Harvard comma):

 Can you find the Oxford commas in this posting? Come on. I dare you.

Yours truly, The Grammar Geek

5 thoughts on “The Oxford comma

  1. Thanks for telling me about your blog! I really enjoyed this post. I hadn’t heard of the Oxford Comma, but now that I know about it, I’ll be certain to use it. It makes everything much clearer!

    Looking through your post in a quest to find all of the Oxford Commas…

    “Clarity, conviction, and confidence”
    “For dessert, we have peach, apple, and raisin pie”
    “superfluous, excessive, and redundant”
    “English roots, the Queen, and a good British accent”

    I look forward to your next grammar post!

  2. Here’s a blurb from Zen Comma (free sample version at http://hostileediting.com) that helps explain why the serial (a.k.a. Oxford, Harvard) comma is useful:

    Samples:
    1.3. I respect my parents, Fred and Gloria.
    1.4. I respect my parents, the president and the first lady.*
    1.5. I respect my parents, the president, and the first lady.

    Samples 1.3–1.5 help to understand why we use a comma before the final and, but, or or. Let’s look at them carefully and see what they might mean to the reader.

    In sample 1.3, the reader will most likely interpret this sentence to mean “I respect my parents,” and the names of my parents are Fred and Gloria. The reader might think I respect my parents, I respect another person named Fred, and I respect yet another person named Gloria, but this is unlikely.

    The most likely interpretation is that Fred and Gloria are the names of my parents. The sentence structure and comma use lead the reader to that conclusion. (We’ll see more about this type of comma use in the section on Commas with Appositives.)

    Now look at sample 1.4. This has the same sentence structure and comma use as sample 1.3. How will the reader interpret this sentence? Well, the reader could interpret this to mean my parents are the president and the first lady, which is not true. We need the final comma used in sample 1.5 to make clear that we’re talking about 3 groups of people: (1) my parents, (2) the president, and (3) the first lady.

    As we see from samples 1.3–1.5, the serial comma, or its absence, can affect how the reader interprets the sentence. When we leave it out, we increase the possibility that the reader will misunderstand the sentence. When we leave it in, we clearly identify each item in the series.

    1. Thanks for your clear explanation. I never understood why anyone would be opposed to the Oxford Comma. I just think most people don’t understand what it’s good for. Clarity!

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