Grammar nerds love to have heated arguments over the Oxford comma, also called a serial comma. But what is it, and why is it even up for debate? Simply put, an Oxford comma separates each word in a series. This type of comma got its name because editors at Oxford University press require it.
I like lettuce, tomato, and pickles on my hamburgers.
Without an Oxford comma, that sentence is:
I like lettuce, tomato and pickles on my hamburgers.
Which one is correct? They’re both correct. Some publishers, like Oxford University, require them. Other organizations, like the Associated Press (AP), don’t allow them. When I write in AP style, I usually have to go back and remove all my Oxford commas!
Here’s a helpful video to introduce this object of fierce debate:
Many writers, including me, like to use the Oxford comma because it ensures the meaning of a sentence is clear. For example, what about this sentence without a serial comma:
I invited the acrobats, President Biden and the Queen of England to dinner.
Wow, President Biden and the Queen of England are acrobats?!? Yeah, no. That sentence needs an Oxford comma:
I invited the acrobats, President Biden, and the Queen of England to dinner.
That’s better, right?
Here’s a more in-depth video about the history of the Oxford comma and an explanation of its uses.
There are many good arguments against using an Oxford comma. The first argument is the Oxford comma enables lazy writing. If you write a sentence that can be so unclear without that extra comma, perhaps you should rewrite the sentence. While that may be true, and you should always strive to write clear sentences, I also like to use the Oxford comma because it cues the reader to add a pause at each comma. In a list, not adding a pause before the last item can result in confusing readers. When I read magazine articles or other work that doesn’t use the Oxford comma, I notice that I sometimes have to go back to read a sentence that wasn’t clear without that pause at the correct place in a list.
I’ve seen some writers suggest you only use the Oxford comma when it’s absolutely necessary. For example, if you write a sentence that simply can’t be revised to be clear without that extra comma, go ahead and use it. I strongly disagree with that approach. To ensure consistency, writers either need to use the Oxford comma all the time, or never use it (as is the case with the AP style guide).
An excellent example of why it’s a good idea to just go ahead and use the Oxford comma is a court case from 2017. From the article:
“A group of dairy drivers argued that they deserved overtime pay for certain tasks they had completed. The company said they did not. An appeals court sided with the drivers, saying that the guidelines themselves were made too ambiguous by, you guessed it, a lack of an Oxford comma.
This is what the law says about activities that do NOT merit overtime pay. Pay attention to the first sentence:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.“
Notice there’s not a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution.” The court said that the sentence was too ambiguous. Guess what would make the sentence clear? Yeah, an Oxford comma.
Although I conform to the style guide for organizations I work with, I will always prefer to use the Oxford comma. As one of my favorite memes says: You can pry the Oxford comma from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands.