Should I Use an Oxford Comma?

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If you want to know whether you should use an Oxford Comma, you can have the long answer or the short one. The long answer is it depends. You don’t need to use it, unless a missing comma will confuse the reader. The short answer is that you can never be wrong if you use it.

For starters–“fight” is an exaggeration.  But people certainly argue about it. One Reddit post about the Oxford comma had 78 comments and another post had 44.  That’s just two out of countless threads about the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. You would think people are debating something serious, like whether to eat the Oreo cookie first or take it apart and eat the filling first.

Quick reminder: the comma before the and when you have a list of three or more is the Oxford comma, as in this example:  I cannot believe people disagree, fuss, and argue about this.

Why Is It Called the Oxford Comma?

We call it the “Oxford” comma because editors and printers first used it at–get ready–Oxford Press. Clever, right?  

Not only do people argue about whether it should be used, they also cannot agree on who first used it at Oxford.  Some people credit Horace Hart, the printer of the Oxford Press, who wrote a style guide for employees at the Press.  Others credit Howard Collins, whose guidebook predated Hart’s. Until 1978, when Peter Sutcliff published a history of Oxford Press and called it the Oxford Comma, it was known as the serial comma.  

Whoever actually first used it, we can blame style guides for some of the confusion. Anyone who has taken college courses and had to write a research paper has encountered a style guide–maybe the MLA, the APA or the Chicago Manual of Style. Horace Hart’s guide outlined the conventions he wanted his writers and editors to follow. Newspapers also have their style guides–the Associate Press, or AP Stylebook is one.  The AP suggests if the lack of a comma causes confusion, then one should rewrite the sentence.

I want to thank John, my parents and Lisa.

One more fact about this much debated comma:  In 2018 drivers for a Maine dairy company won a lawsuit because of a clause in the state’s overtime law that was missing the Oxford comma.  They settled for $5 million.

Bottom Line

So what’s the average writer to do?  I advise you insert the comma. It makes life easier.  And hey, even the AP has entered the argument. In 2017 the AP tweeted  “We don’t Ban Oxford Commas!”

All this writing about commas makes we want to talk about the history of the comma.  I will save that for another post.

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