The Oxford Comma

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Writers and editors tend to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma. If you don’t regularly work with words and grammar, however, you might not even be aware of what the Oxford comma is although you might be using it (or not) in your writing.

Let’s break down what you need to know about the Oxford comma, its uses, and whether you need it.

What Is the Oxford Comma?
An Oxford comma is the final comma that can be used or omitted in a series. For example, consider the two following sentences:

  • I like apples, oranges and pears.
  • I like apples, oranges, and pears.

The meaning of each sentence is the same, but the second one has an additional comma after oranges. That optional comma before the last item in the series is known as the Oxford comma. You may have noticed that, at least in this example, the meaning and clarity of each sentence is the same with or without the Oxford comma. So what’s the big deal about it?

The Case For and Against the Oxford Comma
Writers and editors who prefer to use the Oxford comma will assert that it adds clarity to lists. It also creates a natural slot within a sentence where different objects or items need to be listed.


  • My wife sent me to the store for bread, milk, eggs, butter, and chocolate.

You could say that the Oxford comma isn’t vital to differentiate each item, but some may counter that the list is easier to read and understand this way. In other instances, using the Oxford comma can also help to avoid confusion, as in the following sentences:

  • We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan and Ted.
  • We invited our grouchy neighbors, Jan, and Ted.

Including an Oxford comma can change or clarify the meaning. The first sentence identifies both Jan and Ted as the grouchy neighbors; Jan and Ted are in apposition with neighbors, and we invited them both (two). By including an Oxford comma, the second sentence creates a series: grouchy neighbors, Jan, and Ted. We invited them all (three).

So, what are the downsides to using the Oxford comma? Some writers and editors think that it can slow a sentence or paragraph. Many people learn to read by saying words out loud. They might pause, even to themselves, when reading long strings, so using an Oxford comma might lengthen their time to get through the piece.

In addition, issues of clarity (such as the one illustrated above) can often be cured in other ways. Let’s look at how else we might arrange our example sentence without the Oxford comma:

  • We invited Jan and Ted, as well as our grouchy neighbors.

This sentence is just as descriptive as our previous one, and it doesn’t use an Oxford comma.

Do You Need to Use an Oxford Comma?
Now that you know what the Oxford comma is and how to spot it, you might wonder whether you need to use it in your own writing.

The answer will depend largely on the types of writing that you compose and particularly the preferences of your school, employer, or editor. Some companies and publications swear by the Oxford comma while others prefer not to use it. Some follow style guides such as MLA or The Chicago Manual of Style that provide their own direction concerning the Oxford comma. There are also many different writing and editing situations where you will be asked to make the decision on your own.

With all of this in mind, the main point is to know the style that your editor, teacher, or employer prefers and that you be consistent with it. If you use the Oxford comma in one sentence or paragraph, for example, be sure to use it in the next one as well.

Beyond that, you might simply try writing your sentences in different ways—both with and without the Oxford comma—to see what feels natural to you.

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Posted in Grammar, Grammar Tips, Language Skills, Linguistics.