Any observant reader may notice that the English language is not quite punctuated uniformly. While most punctuations rules are hard and fast, there are a couple of rules and practices that blatantly contradict each other, forcing a writer to either “choose sides” or punctuate their work inconsistently.
One of the greatest fronts in the language’s ongoing Punctuation Wars concerns the use of the comma. Specifically, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma). The term “Oxford comma” merely refers to a very particular way in which the comma can be used—and, I would argue, should be used.
You may have noticed this peculiarity while reading and writing and not known what to call it. The Oxford comma occurs at the end of lists. Here are some examples of the Oxford comma in action:
I have travelled to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
My favourite foods are spaghetti, chocolate cake, and green beans.
Peter, Philippa, and Fran wrote The Hobbit film adaptation.
Can you spot it? In each of these sentences, the Oxford comma is the final comma, separating and distinguishing the second and third items of each list—Asia and Africa, chocolate cake and green beans, and Philippa and Fran.
In turn, each of these sentences could be written this way:
I have travelled to Europe, Asia and Africa.
My favourite foods are spaghetti, chocolate cake and green beans.
Peter, Philippa and Fran wrote The Hobbit film adaptation.
In all of these cases, the Oxford comma has been omitted, and I think we can all agree that nobody really misses it. These sentences are quite clear. However, before you exile the Oxford comma to the linguistic hinterlands, take a minute to study the following sentences, none of which utilize this all-important comma:
Today we learned about Communist countries, America and Australia.
This emergency lane reserved for: disabled, elderly, pregnant children.
In the future I want to graduate, visit my friend Jason and get married.
After winning the game, I thanked my parents, God and Coach Taylor.
In all of these cases, the lack of the Oxford comma introduces crippling breakdowns in meaning. In the first sentence, obviously America and Australia are not Communist countries; if you add the Oxford comma, the sentences makes a lot more sense, since America and Australia are clarified as being part of a serial list. In the second sentence, adding the comma makes it clear that the lane isn’t reserved for pregnant children, but rather for people who are pregnant as well as for children. In the third sentence, adding the comma indicates that I while I want to get married in general, I may not necessarily want to get married to my friend Jason. In the fourth sentence, well… I think it’s safe to say that my parents aren’t God and Coach Taylor—but I did thank them, in addition to my entirely separate and distinct parents.
The Oxford comma is also really helpful in longer sentences, such as this one:
There’s a new restaurant on First Street that serves amazing chicken salads, pizza with lots of pepperoni and ice cream that makes my mouth water.
Well, I don’t think the ice cream is supposed to go on the pizza. But maybe it is? You see, the lack of a comma here adds uncertainty.
In all of these examples, the extra comma is necessary. You have to have it. I suppose you might say that it’s okay to use the Oxford comma when it’s necessary, and leave it off when it’s not. As an editor, however, I’m a big fan of consistency across your writing. So if you’re going to use the Oxford comma sometimes, I think it makes sense to go ahead and use it all the time.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.