Put In or Leave Out: When to Use an Oxford Comma?


Put In or Leave Out: When to Use an Oxford Comma?

In English, both American and British, the question of the Oxford comma use is sometimes difficult to answer. Some grammar experts claim that this serial punctuation mark causes nothing but confusion, whereas others are convinced it allows you to put accents in the sentence right. So what is the Oxford comma? How to use it so that the reader could interpret your writing in the right way? What are the Oxford comma rules? Let’s find out.

oxford comma gosling meme

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial or Harvard. It was first defined as the stylistic element of English grammar by Oxford University.

It was in Oxford where people first began to use this punctuation mark in a sentence before the conjunction when listing several elements in order to avoid the confusion.

However, in the end, there was only more mess as some publications recognize the phenomenon of this comma, while others still do not recommend using it. 

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When to use Oxford comma?

Understanding the nuances of using the Oxford comma is quite simple - you just have to pay attention to the differences in the context. The punctuation symbol is placed before the conjunctions, such as “and”, “or”, “nor”, and is always used before the last item in the list consisting of three or more elements. 

The Oxford comma example: bread, butter, and jelly. 

The first punctuation symbol used in the list is ordinary, while the second one is the Oxford comma. 

The peculiarity of the serial comma in English is that it is not necessary to use it in most cases. Thus, the above list can be written without a comma, with no effect on the meaning. There is no real difference between the two.

The Oxford comma is used to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more items.

My estate goes to my husband, son, daughter-in-law, and nephew.

Why the Oxford comma is important

The use of the Oxford comma is rather controversial. In some cases, it helps avoid ambiguity and double meaning.

Compare the two examples below:

I invited friends, Amy and John. - I invited friends: (whom exactly) Amy and John.

I invited friends, Amy, and John. - I invited friends, (as well as) Amy and John.

In the first case, Amy and John refer to the common word “friends”, and the comma in the sentence serves as a colon. If you use a serial comma, it shows enumeration. It becomes clear that Amy and John are a continuation of the list, and not the names of friends.

If you meant the second option and forgot to put the Oxford comma, the reader might get confused and may not understand whether Amy and John are friends to you or not. Therefore, the English grammar rules require the serial comma to always be put in ambiguous cases, which can be understood in different ways.

In ordinary situations, the rules for using the Oxford comma differ in various directories and dictionaries. In the American version, it is used more often than in the “British” cases. Most of the stylistic guides for journalists do not recommend using the Oxford comma. Other publications, for example, from the University of Oxford, consider its use mandatory. There are many discussions and disputes on this topic taking place in journalistic circles.

We recommend using the serial punctuation symbol only in ambiguous cases. In other situations, such as your college expository writing, act at your discretion; it will not be a mistake.

Why do people argue about the Oxford comma?

Many people still do not understand why we need the Oxford comma, and the disputes have been going on. Most newspapers and magazines drop the Oxford comma in a simple series, apparently feeling that it is unnecessary. The Associated Press Style - the style that journalists adhere to, does not require the use of the Oxford comma. However, according to the academic writing standards, you cannot skip this punctuation mark.

So, better focus on style guides and why even bother, right? Less punctuation - less ink wasted. However, omitting this quotation mark can lead to funny things:

oxford comma meme

Or check this example:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

Without the Oxford comma, this sentence can be understood as follows: you love your parents - Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. But with the punctuation symbol, everything falls into place:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

There are many funny memes about the Oxford comma and videos that will make you laugh. Check out this Oxford comma song by Vampire Weekend:

 

Curiosities are not so bad. But what to do if it comes to court? Thus, the law of Maine states that workers are not entitled to overtime if their work is “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of agricultural, meat, fish and perishable products. Truck drivers sued, claiming they had the right to overtime as their job was to deliver, not “packing for shipment or distribution”. The court agreed, recognizing that if the state had wanted to highlight “distribution” in a separate paragraph, it would have put the notorious punctuation symbol.

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Our verdict

Although the use of the Oxford comma depends on your preferences and the style guide you follow, it is better to play it safe. If you have no clue when to use the Oxford comma and when you can skip it, address this task to our writing experts - they will help you with the matter.