What is… the Oxford comma?

Tony Hallett

Tony Hallett

Managing Director

February 8, 2013 9:13 am

What is the Oxford comma? Its alternative name – the serial comma – provides more of a clue.

It’s the difference between apples, oranges, and bananas AND apples, oranges and bananas. See what I did there?

Is this a big deal? It is to some people.

CommaOur bottom line with all our pieces about style and grammar is simple: be consistent.

But which way should you swing?

There are those who are strongly opinionated on the Oxford comma. I’ve even seen ‘Fan of the Oxford comma’ as part of Twitter bios. Or words to that effect.

Although neither is technically right – or wrong – my advice when it comes to professional content creation is simple. Leave out the Oxford comma.
Why? It’s an extra character. It might not mean extra ink online but I always think it slows down the flow of a sentence. In a headline (I know, there are rarely A,B and C lists in headlines) it is downright ugly.

And before anyone thinks this is a cultural view – given its origin at the Oxford University Press – consider that the Oxford comma is arguably slightly more favoured in the US than the UK and other users of British English.

Which is funny, given how many American English words evolved to be more efficient in use of characters. (Saving old time newspaper publishers some of that there ink along the way.)

Further reading:
As ever, Wikipedia is good on grammar. Its entry on the serial comma even includes this famous reason for using it, the book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Bonus tip:
Make an exception (there are always exceptions to a rule!) when writing certain types of lists eg pairs – ‘My favourite desserts are peaches and cream, jelly and custard, and apple pie and ice-cream.’

Bonus bonus tip:

It is occasionally referred to as the Harvard comma. It’s a veritable Rhodes Scholar of punctuation!

*Image comma chameleon by debaird used under CC 2.0.

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