What is the Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma is the final comma in a list. It usually comes before a coordinating conjunctions and or or.
Example: Sally bought peppers, apples, pears, and grapes.
In this sentence, the Oxford comma comes after the word pears because it is the comma that marks the end of the list. It ensures that the last two items aren’t grouped together by providing clarity that they’re distinct.
The Oxford comma is also commonly referred to as the serial comma.
Where does the Oxford Comma come from?
This probably won’t surprise you much, but it originally came from The Oxford University Press. This publication was the first to popularize its use. Over time, other publication formats began to adopt the use of the Oxford comma.
Does Everyone Use the Oxford Comma?
The short answer to this question is no. The use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, and some school districts might teach it while others do not.
Even more confusion stems from different standardized writing formats because they all have different rules. Associated Press (AP) Style, the standard format newspaper reporters and journalists, doesn’t demand the use of the Oxford comma. However, many American styles such as MLA or APA style require it.
Here is an example of a sentence without the use of the Oxford comma:
Example: John decided that he would propose to Elise with roses, chocolates and a ring.
Should You Use the Oxford Comma?
The short answer is, well, it’s up to you. Man writers choose to use the Oxford comma because there’s less confusion as to where a list ends. It also keeps the items in a list congruent to one another and omits the possible confusion that items in the list have a stronger relationship than they actually do.
An example of a confusing sentence is:
Example: I want to help my friends, Sally and Matt.
In this sentence, the reader could infer that the friends are named Sally and Matt; however, what if Sally was the narrator’s sister? The use of the Oxford comma would exclude Sally and Matt from being associated as the friends. The example with the Oxford Comma would read as:
Example: I want to help my friends, Sally, and Matt.
See how the Oxford comma distinguishes the items from one another? It ensures the reader knows that the friends are separate entities from Sally and Matt.
The Oxford Comma also replaces conjunctions
What’s even funnier is a serial list with the Oxford comma is just one way to write a sentence. For example, the sentence:
My favorite animals are cats, dogs, and rabbits.
Can easily be rewritten as:
My favorite animals are cats and dogs and rabbits.
Of course the way you write your sentences is simply a stylistic choice, but there wouldn’t be a need for the Oxford comma in the latter example.
Opposition of the Oxford Comma
With the ever-changing English language, there’s always people who want to debate over what’s grammatically correct. And you might be surprised that there’s people very passionate on both sides.
Some people argue that the Oxford comma isn’t necessary. They claim that you could rewrite a sentence in a different way and it’d still make sense. Going back to the example before, an opponent of the Oxford comma would say that the items in the list should simply be reordered to make more sense.
Example: I want to help Matt, Sally and my friends.
In this example, there is no Oxford comma, and it is clear Matt and Sally aren’t looped in with the friends.
…and yet there was a lawsuit that costed $10 million over one
When it comes to writing contracts, your wording must be extra clear, and that includes your commas. In a famous lawsuit, truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy because they didn’t pay their employees overtime. The law in Maine requires that overtime must be paid for anything worked over forty hours at a rate of 1.5x the employee’s hourly wage.
The part of the contract in question was:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish product; and
- Perishable foods
According to the contract, these types of activities do not warrant overtime. And in the beginning between the words shipment and or, there is no Oxford comma.
This means that packing for shipment or distribution of these items could be considered separate items in the list. And because it isn’t clear if distribution is part of this series, Oakhurst Dairy wanted to deny their employees overtime pay. However, the drivers believed that this wording only excluded packing but not the distribution of these items.
If there were a comma here, it would be clear that the list includes the tasks of drivers; however, there isn’t one. The judge ruled in favor of the drivers.
That means the Oxford comma is necessary to help clear up court contracts!
You know where you stand
Old habits die hard, and most people are set writing one way or the other. However, just know that whether you stand for the Oxford comma, against it, or don’t give a flying cupcake, there’s always going to be someone that disagrees with you.