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What is the Oxford or serial comma?

March 2nd, 2020 by Jane Turner

The Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is often argued. 

 

When I was at school, it was forbidden, verboten, tiltott, prohibida, interdite – you just did not use it. I was told it was only used by those who didn’t know anything about grammar, punctuation or the rules of English language. Oh, how wrong they were!

 

For those unsure, the Oxford comma is that particular comma which (sometimes!) appears before ‘and’ in a list of words.

 

I’ve done an example here and marked the Oxford comma in red.

e.g. The first sentence contained words in German, Hungarian, Spanish, and French.

 

Use of the Oxford comma is often debated because it’s not actually required in all instances. For example in the sentence above, as Spanish and French languages are well known, distinct and recognisable as separate, I would say it does not need an Oxford comma.

However…

More and more often I see sentences which not only should have it, but desperately need it.  Prime examples number one, two and three…

Paragraph of 3 ambiguous sentences that could be made clearer with an Oxford comma

So, is the author saying that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were married to Merle Haggard? That his parents are Ayn Rand and God? That Nelson Mandela is an 800-year-old demigod and… You get the picture!

The addition of an Oxford comma to these 3 sentences would make the lists clear and more readable – so the reader can clearly see a list consisting of parents, Ayn Rand, and God. Can clearly see a list consisting of Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and dildo collector.

 

Here’s another example, this one with possibly world-affecting consequences…

Snippet from Sky News announcing Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage

 

 

If you’re in doubt on when to use the Oxford comma, just take all the commas out of your sentence and read it aloud. See if it makes perfect sense. If there is any doubt on your intended purpose, use it.

I love an Oxford comma. I find them incredibly useful, and heartily recommend them. 😊

 

If you would like help with your manuscript or business documentation, check out my services or just GET IN TOUCH!

 

Further Reading:

Grammar Girl – The bottom line on serial commas

Wikipedia – Serial comma

 

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