The Curious Case of Oxford Comma

Oxford Comma

The Basics First – What is an Oxford Comma?

(I’m surprised how a lot of people haven’t even heard of it!)

The Oxford comma, Serial comma, or Harvard comma is a comma placed immediately before a coordinating junction (‘and’ or ‘or’) in a list of three or more items. Take, for instance, these examples with three breakfast items:

I had bread, butter, and jam for breakfast today.

I had bread, butter and jam for breakfast today. 

The comma after ‘butter’ and before ‘and’ in the first sentence is the Oxford comma. Now, the meaning in both sentences is quite clearly understood, I had three items for my breakfast, namely – bread, butter, and jam. Simple! The usage of an Oxford comma doesn’t really make much of a difference here and the meaning is clear in both cases.

But now, consider this scenario:

Sam had Peter, a dentist, and a carpenter on his team.

Sam had Peter, a dentist and a carpenter on his team.

Do these two sentences convey similar meanings?

The first sentence means that there were four people in all – Sam, Peter, a dentist, and a carpenter – the meaning is perfectly clear!

On the other hand, the second sentence may mean there were just two people – Sam and Peter, while Peter was both a dentist and a carpenter. There is ambiguity in this sentence and those who don’t believe in Oxford comma may argue that there are, in fact, four people here too, and a comma before ‘and’ doesn’t really make any difference to the list!

Also Read: 11 Common Words You Might Be Using Wrong!

See how the omission of a Harvard comma may make Obama and Rihanna your parents (Lucky you!):

It is, in fact, a reality that there is no certain rule pertaining to the use of the Oxford comma and you are free to choose whether you would like to use it in your sentences, or not. But, in the end, the whole motive behind writing something is that the meaning should be clear to the people reading it. Heard about the example of the lack of the Oxford comma in Maine’s labour laws that cost the company $5 million in lawsuits?

An interesting read: How a company lost $5 million due to the lack of an Oxford comma.

Are you on Team Oxford Comma?

I am a staunch supporter of the Oxford comma and I tried to find out what people thought about it; how many of them resonated with my thinking, and how many thought it was plain pretentious. For this, I posted a question on LinkedIn asking people in my network for their valuable comments on the subject. I received hundreds of responses.

Most of the professionals who engaged in a conversation had something valuable to say and add to the subject. But I won’t say the whole LinkedIn family was united on the usage of the Oxford comma; a number of people had their own valid reasons for not using it.

Here are some of the comments I received from the experts in the field:

I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma, and unless specified otherwise, I always use it because it very specifically separates items in a list, rarely leaving any room for confusion –  Puja Lalwani

Yes, I think it’s essential to use the #OxfordComma. As when you want to differentiate and separate items in a list, it becomes easier for the reader to know how the pauses work and what are the items. Additionally, it looks organized – Pratyusha Das

Well, I prefer not to use #oxfordcomma much as it gives an impression that you about to write  more for the list but eventually you stop and end up with “and” along with the last name for the list –  Sameeksha Pardeshi

Unless you are writing for some specific publication, it’s totally up to you to use Oxford comma. But sometimes skipping it may create misunderstandings on the readers’ prospects who are possessive about its use. For instance, I can say that I love my friends, Harry Potter and parents. In this case, many readers may think that my friends are my parents and Harry Potter.

Unless I add an Oxford comma after parents. So I find it more convenient to use the Oxford comma especially when I am addressing a larger segment of readers who do not belong to the world of news editing – Anjali Bansal

I don’t like it, but sometimes, albeit rarely, I will agree with autocorrect and put one in to appease the mighty beast. Generally, however, I click ignore –  Phil Deakin

I believe to maintain the quality and tidiness while writing, oxford comma shall be used. Gradually we are coming to a platform where global content is in the need. So, using Oxford comma shall be practiced around – Urvashi Saraswat

In my opinion, it is important to use the Oxford Comma.

Reason: When you separate items in a list, it becomes convenient for the reader to know how the pauses work. Also, it looks organized .

For example,  My niches are market research, finance, and marketing.

Here, I separate finance and marketing with a comma because they are two different things –  Simran Malhotra

The Oxford comma keeps things organized, and isn’t that what punctuation is for? – Nancy M Scuri

It is of importance and also avoids any ambiguity. Anyhow established norms must be continued. It is necessary –  Zaheer Arif

No me gusta. Never liked it. But yes, on occasions I felt it was needed – Sucheta Biswas

Since I work as a Scientific Editor, it has become second nature to use the serial comma (for documents requiring American English) and the Oxford comma (for those requiring British English). Most other content mediums don’t necessarily ask for such stringent rules to be followed, so whether or not I use it depends on the medium I write for. Mainly because people who do not know the existence of the serial/Oxford comma can get confused by its use and think its misplaced –  Trushna Bhatt

This may be a different approach to the thought since I visualize what I read and that is just a personal perspective, but, you pause when you and only an #OxfordComma does it for me – Siddharth Aalambayan

I don’t think it’s necessary, but I will personally always use it. For me, it allows a pause for breath, so I’m a fan –  Jasmine Ballard

Maybe we can use it when we are listing proper nouns (I love my sisters Aruna, Runa, and Una.) VS a generic listing (I love writing with pencils, sketch pens and ink pens). There isn’t much scope of confusion in generic terms. This is how I use it. Newspapers and AP style don’t require it. So, if we are writing for audiences who only read the papers they might consider it an error – Aruna S

Also known as the Serial  comma, the Oxford comma is pretty much an optional  comma before the word ‘and’ & ‘or’ in a list. Some style guides suggest its use while other’s suggest to skip it.

I usually skip it as it does not affect the clarity and meaning of a sentence .

If you are supposed to write in a particular format then, you are definitely required to use it but, if there is no definite style guide for you to follow, it is good to skip it. it seems quite unnecessary to me –  Preeti Sagar

Also Read: What Differentiates the American and British Styles of English?

It is necessary to keep including Oxford Commas except for the times when it might mislead the readers. Not many of our readers understand the Oxford Comma. Sometimes, it may lend clarity to the content while a few rare times might lead to ambiguity. Hence, you can use it as long as it doesn’t get misinterpreted, in which case, you can go without the Oxford Comma – Lakshmi Padmanaban

Now, from all the responses received, it was evident that more and more people were into the use of the comma while quite a few were against it. Even though a consensus can’t always be reached, I would advocate the use of Oxford commas so as to remove ambiguity from sentences and be clearer with your messaging.