Oxford commas (1)

I was puzzled last week to see references on Twitter to the exotic-sounding “Oxford comma”, a new term to me. It turns out (thank you, Mark Allen and  Oxford Dictionaries) that the Oxford comma is another name for the “serial comma”:

an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.
It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:
These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.
The Oxford comma is also known as the ‘serial comma’.

Style guides differ on whether or not the Oxford comma should be used (as noted above, it’s optional and depends on house-style), and it’s more common in US than in UK English.

I don’t use the serial comma unless it’s needed to avoid ambiguity, as in the second example above.

I used to use it, until I started working with a team of translators whose house style was to omit it. A clear case of grammar fickleness.

The Wikipedia entry gives you more information on serial commas than you’d ever have thought possible. And “Oxford Comma” is also the title of a song by Vampire Weekend.

By Marian Dougan

2 Responses

  1. I’m slightly surprised to see this presented as a matter of style and therefore choice, as to me the function of the commas at the beginning of the list is to separate words, whereas this does not apply between the last two items (except to avoid confusion, as you state), which are already separated by the ‘and’. It also seems to add a brief pause where one is not required, unnecessarily breaking the flow.

    1. The Oxford/serial comma seems to be partly an issue of UK vs US English. Even within the US, however, opinion differs. I haven’t looked into Australian or NZ English – would be interesting to know what their usage is.
      I take your point about pauses and flow – it’s so important to “listen to” the rhythm and flow of our writing. Maybe users of the Oxord comma feel that the additional pause is needed, to alert readers to the fact that the list/sentence is about to end.

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