The Contentious Oxford Comma


What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma, affectionately known as the serial comma, is an intriguing little punctuation mark that spices up our lists and adds clarity to our writing. 

So, picture this: you’re crafting a sentence involving a delightful trio of items, and you want to ensure each one shines in all its grammatical glory. That’s where the Oxford comma comes in, like a stylist for your words.

Now, let’s break it down. The Oxford comma struts its stuff by gallantly sliding right before the conjunction (“and” or “or”) in a list of three or more items. That little extra comma gracefully takes place after the penultimate item, just before our trusty conjunction makes its grand entrance. 


For example, “I adore sunny beaches, invigorating hikes, and the soothing sound of raindrops.”

Imagine the exact phrase: “I  adore sunny beaches, invigorating hikes, and the soothing sound of raindrops.” One would assume you like “sunny beaches” alone, “invigorating hikes,” and “the soothing sound of raindrops” simultaneously. This comma strives to rid us of any ambiguity, leaving behind crystal-clear sentences in its wake. 

Or how about the following scenario: without the Oxford comma, the sentence “I invited my parents, Barack Obama and Lady Gaga” could raise a few eyebrows, leaving people to wonder if your parents are the famous duo or if they’re separate entities altogether. However, with the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes a harmony of clarity, stating that you invited three distinct individuals: your parents, Barack Obama, and Lady Gaga.

Oxford comma rhinoceri, Washington, and Lincoln illustration meme
Image courtesy of englishlanguagefaqs

Is the Oxford comma mandatory?

But here’s the catch… the usage of the Oxford comma, surprisingly enough, is not set in stone within the realm of English writing. Different style guides and writing conventions hold diverse opinions on this matter. It’s a stylistic choice or punctuation preference that allows writers to sway between various approaches.

What some have to say

Some esteemed style guides, like The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, tend to shun the Oxford comma, viewing it as an unnecessary embellishment unless required for disentangling ambiguous phrases. Conversely, The Chicago Manual of Style embraces this little mark, suggesting its usage in most cases. So, whether you join the Comma Camp or choose a more streamlined approach, remember that the Oxford comma is a stylistic journey with multiple paths to traverse.

The Oxford comma in different languages

As we embark on our linguistic exploration, it’s worth mentioning that the Oxford comma isn’t solely confined to the English language. Each linguistic domain boasts its own punctuation rules and conventions, some of which may harmonize with the concept of the Oxford comma. Similar concepts of a serial comma can be found frolicking in the grammatical meadows of other languages and writing systems.

Whether you’re a native English speaker or a language enthusiast embracing English as a second tongue, familiarity with the Oxford comma may vary. Language learners and non-native speakers may encounter this enigmatic comma during their studies, waltzing with its usage in grammar lessons or unearthing its secrets through specific writing guidelines. However, it’s important to remember that all English speakers don’t universally know or follow the Oxford comma. Its usage remains more of a stylistic choice than a standardized rule.


Oxford University
Image courtesy of English Live Blog

Now, let’s take a brief detour to uncover the origins of this fascinating comma and its charming moniker, shall we? The term “Oxford comma” springs from the prestigious Oxford University Press, a venerable publishing house in the heart of the University of Oxford. Here, the Oxford comma found its early proponents, with the Oxford University Press favoring its inclusion in their publications.

Find the University of Oxford’s style guide here.

Over time, this peculiar comma gained notoriety and affectionately became known as the Oxford comma, its name echoing through the literary corridors of academia.

So there you have it: the Oxford comma, a spirited punctuation mark that dances among lists and clarifies our intentions.

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