Perhaps you know and love your Oxford Comma.
Or perhaps you only know it as part of Vampire Weekend’s 2008 hit song.
However you know it, you’ll no doubt be aware that it is a hotly contested element of grammar. And, as grammarians argue about if, how and when to use it, the rest of us are left wondering what to make of the Oxford Comma.
So let’s clear up this mess, or at least attempt to understand this divisive dash a little better.
What is an Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma is named after the Oxford University Press, a UK publisher credited with its wide usage.
Simply, an Oxford comma is an optional comma placed before the final ‘and’ of a list.
“I went to shops and I bought: an apple, a banana, a carrot, and a donut.”
There it is, between carrot and and.
Now, it is an optional element, meaning this sentence is also correct:
“I went to shops and I bought: an apple, a banana, a carrot and a donut.”
See the missing punctuation between the carrot and the and? This writer chose not to use the Oxford comma. He/she is not wrong but neither the first sentence. So, what should you choose to do?
Before we get to that, let’s see how divisive this can really be. An incident in 2011 revealed the strength of feeling some people have for the Oxford comma.
How the Oxford comma almost damaged the ‘special relationship
In 2011, a tweet circulated that Oxford University was set to abandon the Oxford comma. It was only a half-truth, but still went viral and drew audibly sharp intakes of breath from the other side of the Atlantic.
As it turns out, Americans really do care about the Oxford comma. Many US style guides—guidebooks on how to use words, punctuation and other grammatical elements in different types of documents or publications—tell us that the Oxford comma is not actually optional but should be mandatory.
But the hyperbole about Oxford University’s abandonment of its own punctuation mark was unfounded. The spoof was revealed but the divide between the US and the UK was left clearly for all to see.
The truth was that the university’s own style guide they had merely corrected their style guide in respect of common sense.
Their guidance was the same as found in the Guardian Style Guide: in straightforward lists an Oxford comma is unnecessary but it can bring clarity to more complex sentences.
Crisis averted, the Oxford comma has continued with its optional status (in the UK at least) now clear and confirmed.
So, given that it’s optional, just when is it useful to use an Oxford comma?
When to use an Oxford Comma
Simply, when there is a risk of ambiguity.
That is, when a sentence’s meaning is not clear, or could mean more than one thing. In that case, an Oxford comma can do much to direct the reader to understand the writer’s intention.
Google ‘Oxford comma memes’ and you’ll find plenty of examples of sentences whose meanings without an Oxford comma are very funny. While enjoyable to read, when you are trying to deliver a message, obviously ambiguity is not what you’re aiming for.
Here’s a good example from the Guardian Style Guide:
“I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling.”
A simple dedication to four people: the writer’s two parents and the two authors Martin Amis and JK Rowling. Note that in this sentence Martin Amis and JK Rowling clearly are not the writer’s parents.
“I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling.”
The potential for confusion arises. In this sentence, the dedication could be to two people—Martin Amis and JK Rowling—who are now listed as the parents of the writer. But it could also still be to four people. The point is, without the Oxford comma we just don’t know for sure.
(If they were the writer’s parents, I would use a colon after parents to clarify this, but that’s a conversation for another time!)
So, in this case, the use of the Oxford comma prevents ambiguity, making it clear that there is a list of four separate people.
One other good use is in lists where there is more than one use of and: “I choose to print my photos in sepia, black and white, and colour.” Get the picture?
So, should we give a !^*$ about the Oxford comma?
Yes, we should. But ultimately its usage should be a matter of common sense, not something mandatory.