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Among writers and editors, the Oxford comma is a subject of heated debate. Who knew a seemingly innocuous extra comma could incite such fury in seasoned and educated professionals? While it is a tiny part of grammar, it’s an important one. Here are just a few reasons why you should always use the Oxford comma in your writing.
What Is the Oxford Comma?
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Perhaps you’re not familiar with the Oxford comma? If not, it’s a style preference required by the Oxford University Press that adds a comma before the last item of a list. You can see an example of the Oxford comma in the phrase “eggs, milk, and butter.” Without the Oxford comma, that phrase would be “eggs, milk and butter.” It’s a small difference, but as some later examples will show, an important one.
You might also know the Oxford comma as a serial comma, Harvard comma, or series comma. Whatever its name, this comma plays an important role in creating great content that’s not ambiguous or hard to understand.
More organizations than the Oxford University Press use this life-saving comma. In fact, it’s quite popular in American English overall. One of the biggest formats to embrace the Oxford comma is APA Style, which is a format commonly used for academic articles, books, and journals. You’ll also find it in the pages of “The Chicago Manual of Style,” a guide used for numerous American publications, particularly in the social science and historical fields.
If you’ve ever immersed yourself in scholarly humanities, literary, or language studies, you’ll be infinitely familiar with “The MLA Style Manual,” which also calls for the Oxford comma. Another important writing style guide it’s included in is “The Elements of Style,” which Time magazine actually called one of the most influential books ever written in English.
As if that wasn’t enough evidence, you’ll also find the Oxford comma in the “U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.” If our own government supports the comma, it’s almost treason to be against it.
You might be wondering – how can one little comma prevent ambiguity? Certainly, a person will be able to figure out what you mean without it. In many instances, this isn’t always the case. The University of Oxford Style Guide specifically notes that you should “always insert a comma in this position if it would help prevent confusion.”
One of the most popular examples of this comes from a sentence in a book dedication as follows: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
While the title of the book and author are unknown, that hasn’t stopped the sentence from making a viral circle around the internet. In this example, the editor removed the Oxford comma, resulting in an ambiguous phrase that makes it seem like the author was brought into the world through the copulation of Rand and God.
Another reference in the Oxford Style Manual makes note that the Oxford is about more than just preventing confusion – it also creates equal emphasis for all the items of the list. To prevent one item from being seemingly more than one item, your sentence “needs a comma to create a pause of equal weight to those that came before.”
Just think about it. If you’re reading a list out loud, you’ll probably give a rising intonation to each item with a short pause after each, with a falling intonation on the last item. This is typically how the English language works, and the comma is a good visual signifier of this. Without the Oxford comma, it looks as though the last two items are one, contrasting with the way in which we speak.
Commas aren’t the only way to separate items in a bulleted list. In cases when the list is confusing or long to read, grammar suggests that you use semicolons in place of commas so that the reader knows the exact break between each item. This is a standard practice that nearly every style guide concurs with.
The interesting thing about this standard is that it always calls for a semicolon before the last item in the list. There’s no argument over the Oxford semicolon; it’s a guaranteed fact that you’ll find one comfortably snuggled before the “and.” With such acceptance of this list form construction, why are commas getting such a bad rap?
Most of the time, each item in a list is just as important as the others. When creating your shopping list, milk is equally as important as bread. The two don’t have a connection other than the fact that they are both things you need.
When you eliminate the Oxford comma, you take away this sense of separation and instead create a connection between the two items that may not be warranted. A fun example that highlights this came from a TV guide listing: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”
Without the Oxford comma here, the sentence makes it seem like Nelson Mandela is both a demigod and dildo collector. These should all be three separate items, but because 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector are listed together, it highlights them as an important phrase that modifies Nelson Mandela. This connection is not only unwarranted, but it’s rather creepy.
As you can see, the Oxford comma is an invaluable part of grammar. While not everyone has come around on its benefits yet (we’re looking at you, AP Style), that doesn’t mean you have to go without it. Be a pioneer and create quality content for your readers that’s unambiguous and matches the natural tone of the spoken English language. Plus, you’ll be following pre-existing grammar conventions as well as preventing any two items from the list from standing out. Both your readers and half of the writers and editors in the world will thank you.