The Oxford Comma

This may be one of Grammar’s most debatable ‘rules’. Is it though a hard and fast rule? Or is it purely stylistic, depending on personal preference? Before answering that, let’s see what the Oxford comma really is.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is, “A comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before and or or.

Example: I like reading, hiking, and swimming.

In the above sentence, the comma placed after ‘hiking’ is referred to as the Oxford comma.

So what’s the debate about? Some writers claim that the Oxford comma can create confusion when reading; others say it resolves confusion.

Example: Bob dined with his parents, Anne and Jake.

In the sentence above, those who are for the Oxford comma will say that it is unclear to the reader whether Bob dined with his parents whose names are Anne and Jake or Bob dined with his parents along with Anne and Jake. If the latter was true, then in a case like this, ‘anti-Oxford-comma’ writers will suggest that rearranging the sentence and omitting the Oxford comma clears the ambiguity.

Example: Bob dined with Anne, Jake and his parents.

However, according to pro-Oxford comma writers, this special comma is needed to avoid ambiguity.

Example (1): Bob dined with his parents, Anne, and Jake.

Now it is clear who were the persons Bob dined with.

Example (2): Jerry attended the opera with his two sisters, Michael, and Dave.

Without the comma after Michael, this sentence will be understood to mean that Jerry’s two sisters’ names are Michael, and Dave.

From these examples, we realize that when it comes to use of this comma, it can be optional, but other times, necessary.

There are writers who are consistent with their use of the Oxford comma, even when it is not needed to make clear the meaning of a sentence. Then there are those who use it only when it must be used so as to avoid confusion. Which writer are you?