In the writing community, there are plenty of things to debate. Among the most prominent arguments out there is the use of the Oxford comma.
The Oxford comma is the comma found separating the penultimate and final item in a list.
“Some of my favorite bands include 5 Seconds of Summer, Sheppard, 98 Degrees, and Westlife.”
Without the Oxford comma, that sentence would read…
“Some of my favorite bands include 5 Seconds of Summer, Sheppard, 98 Degrees and Westlife.”
It seems like such a minor change that shouldn’t really make too big of a difference, but the Oxford Comma is something that just hasn’t been completely agreed on. Both sides of the argument have their reasons.
Those defending the Oxford comma often do so because of the clarity it provides, and its absence in a sentence can signify a connection between items. It also resembles the way people pause while speaking.
Those opposed deem it unnecessary and a waste of space. Additionally, as is the case with some other forms of punctuation, the Oxford comma might slow things down.
At the same time, some say the Oxford comma has the potential to introduce new ambiguity while trying to clear something up.
A common technique used for explaining the Oxford comma is by coming up with a book dedication.
Take a look at this example:
I would like to thank my parents, Jane Austen, and Jeff Goldblum.
Here, it is clear that these are three separate entities.
Without the Oxford comma…
I would like to thank my parents, Jane Austen and Jeff Goldblum.
This suggests the parents in question are Jane Austen and Jeff Goldblum.
Another example is to think of three acts in a concert line up.
Tonight’s performers include All Time Low, The Chainsmokers, and 5 Seconds of Summer.
Here, we have three separate acts.
Tonight’s performers include All Time Low, The Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds of Summer.
In this case, the implication is that The Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds of Summer are performing together. While this is possible, as they collaborated on “Who Do You Love” and are touring together this fall (and, yes, I’m attending a show), the Oxford comma makes the distinction between their performing together and performing separately.
The phrasing of this example may also lead some to believe that All Time Low’s members are The Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds of Summer.
To clarify, it’s the difference between “Performers include All Time Low, Vance Joy, and Alvaro Soler.” vs “Performers include All Time Low, Vance Joy and Alvaro Soler.”
As with before, the Oxford comma helps to define the number of acts as well as the members of the prior, as Vance Joy and Alvaro Soler are not members of All Time Low.
In these examples, the Oxford comma helps to clear things up.
But the Oxford comma can also make things more confusing.
Thinking back to the book dedication example:
To my mother, Jane Austen, and Jeff Goldblum.
The Oxford comma after “Jane Austen” adds a level of ambiguity about the identity of the mother because the punctuation leaves it unclear as to whether this is a list of three people or two, with the mother being Jane Austen herself (which is impossible as Jane Austen herself did not have any children).
As with many things about writing, there isn’t exactly a straightforward answer. It comes down to personal preference in most cases, though there are some fields of writing where the rules regarding the Oxford comma are more strict.
When I was a copy editor on my college’s student newspaper, we adhered to the standards set by the Associated Press in addition to some rules that were specific to our campus like club names and titles used when referencing certain faculty members. We did not use the Oxford comma, and its exclusion took a while for me to adjust to.
In fiction, I prefer to use Oxford commas. It’s mostly a stylistic choice for me because I like the way the text looks with it better than without. That’s honestly the main reason I use it. Without, it feels like something is missing. As I’ve been typing up this article, I’ve had a difficult time not inserting Oxford commas in the examples where they are not meant to appear.
The use of an Oxford comma can also be a regional thing. In British English texts, for example, the Oxford comma is used less frequently than it is in American English. Even though I tend to use the British spelling in my stories (towards rather than toward), I was taught to use the Oxford comma in school so it feels more natural to me.
Experiment with a few lines from your work in progress, using the Oxford comma and not to see how the meaning of a sentence changes depending on its use. Occasionally, it might be better to rephrase the sentence altogether to prevent any confusion or other issues that might arise by a misused Oxford comma.
Overall, the only real rule concerning the Oxford comma is consistency. If you use it, use it throughout the entire text. If not, then make sure there are none present.
It’s a judgment call, one of many choices, and one decision writers need to make for themselves.