What is the Oxford Comma and When You Need It

Hannah
January 12, 2022 ·
4 min read
Grammar
Style
Writing

The Oxford Dictionary defines the Oxford comma as “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’.” Simply put, it’s the comma placed before the conjunction at the end of a list of things. For instance:

I’d like to meet my colleagues, Kristen, and James.

You may ask whether the last comma in the example above is necessary. In this case, the Oxford comma clarifies to the reader that colleagues, Kristen, and James are separate entities. It implies that Kristen and James are not the writer’s colleagues. If they are, however, the Oxford comma should be removed:

I’d like to meet my colleagues, Kristen and James.

The Oxford comma is also called the serial (or series) comma and is used to clear up ambiguity like in the sentence above. However, it’s redundant in most lists:

Our pets love bananas, apples and watermelons.

As you can see, the Oxford comma in this example is unnecessary. Should we use it when it’s clearly superfluous? Let’s figure it out.

Do We Always Need the Oxford Comma?

To illustrate why the Oxford comma is important in some cases, let’s consider the following example:

We’re happy to see your friends, Taylor Swift and Jared Leto.

The obvious questions arise: are they seeing the friends and Taylor Swift and Jared Leto as separate entities? Or are Taylor Swift and Jared Leto the friends? It’s ambiguous and there is no clear answer unless the Oxford comma is present:

We’re happy to see your friends, Taylor Swift, and Jared Leto.

The Oxford comma here fully clarifies that they’re happy to see not only Taylor and Jared but also their friends.

However, as mentioned before the Oxford comma isn’t always necessary:

Yesterday I bought a dress, a skirt, and an amazing ring.

There is no ambiguity, so the Oxford comma is redundant. Nevertheless, supporters of the comma insist on its usage even if it’s unnecessary. In fact, it’s a matter of style. 

Use of the Oxford comma Comes Down to Style

Most publications have their own writing guidelines. There are two well-known style guides – the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook doesn’t require the use of the Oxford comma. In turn, the Chicago Manual of Style uses it. These guides are created not to demonstrate the only way for grammatically correct writing, but to maintain consistency. 

In general, whether to use the Oxford comma or not is up to you if the ambiguity isn’t in place. 

Bottom Line

The use of the Oxford comma is grammatically correct and sometimes can be unnecessary. Therefore, it’s open to interpretation and there is no clear answer.

When it comes to academic writing, make sure you’ve chosen appropriate style guides. Otherwise, follow your gut and keep in mind that being consistent is what matters most.

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