September 15, 2016

The Oxford, Harvard, and Serial comma


stack of books

What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is that comma in this post’s title after ‘Harvard’ – a comma preceding an ‘and’ (or ‘or’). Its use is not compulsory and indeed many people don’t use it. When this comma is left in, it becomes what is variously termed the Oxford, Harvard, or Serial comma (this sentence also serves as an example).

The decline of the Oxford comma

It was once common but within the last century use of the Oxford comma has begun to wane (particularly in Australian and British writing). There are a number of reasons for this, however the most influential seems to be a result of economy; the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual dictates its writers don’t use the comma. This is aimed at saving space in newspaper articles. I wonder how much space is saved from its omission? I’m inclined to think not much.

Does the Oxford comma do anything useful?

Another reason for its decline is that in most cases it does not improve the clarity of writing, which is the purpose of grammar. That said, there are times when the Oxford comma does clarify meaning.

Ambiguities occur most regularly when the last or second last item in a list comes in a pair and therefore contains an ‘and’, such as:

Greg’s favourite foods are lasagna, fish and chips and cheese.

In this example, which does not include the Oxford comma, there are two possible readings:

Greg’s favourite meals may be ‘[lasagne], [fish and chips], and [cheese]’ or ‘[lasagne], [fish], and [chips and cheese]’.

A comma after either ‘fish’ or ‘chips’ would solve the ambiguity.

The Oxford comma could also have helped in this notification from Sky News: “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…”

iPhone homescreen showing Sky News, with comma

Without the Oxford comma, a reader could be left thinking that Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed on their wedding date with a handshake, while at a tribute for Nelson Mandela.

Should you use the Oxford comma?

Well, you have choices (use it, don’t use it, only use it when it avoids ambiguities). That said, in many cases it won’t be up to you – most large organisations have a style guide that will dictate what you do. You will usually be able to rewrite a sentence too if you’re worried. For example, ‘Greg’s favourite foods are chips and cheese, lasagna and fish.’

If you think your writing could benefit from a proofread, give us a call. We’ll make sure your content clearly articulates exactly what you are trying to say, without any grammatical errors.

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