When to use the Oxford comma (gasp!)

Ah, the Oxford comma. It’s at the center of one of the most contentious copy-editing debates of all time. Today, I’ll clear up a long-held misconception about this famous grammar dispute and provide guidance on when to use this infamous punctuation, to ensure your writing conveys the intended meaning.

What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, is the comma used before the last element in a series before the conjunction “and” or “or.”

With the serial comma: The American flag is red, white, and blue.
Without the serial comma (AP style): The American flag is red, white and blue.

The Associated Press Stylebook has long said to omit the serial comma in a simple series. The problem is, people have misinterpreted this to mean you should never use it, leading to all kinds of squabbles over how the lack of an Oxford comma resulted in an avoidable catastrophe.

Presumably, the AP Stylebook editors were tired of their entry being misconstrued. At the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference in March, the AP Stylebook editors made an important clarification:

About commas, our guidance: The basic guideline is to use common sense. Punctuation is to make clear the thought being expressed. Most simple series don’t need a final comma for clarity. But if a comma is needed to make sure the meaning is clear, use the comma. Use a comma at the end of a series if an integral part of the series uses a conjunction: orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs.

Serial offense
You’ll see many attempted arguments for the use of the serial comma, but many of them are oversimplified because they assume only two options — comma or no comma — without considering the possibility of other edits. Here’s one example that illustrates the value of the serial comma:

The speaker lineup will include the world’s most famous serial killers, the Dalai Lama and the pope.

First of all, that sentence raises bigger questions than where to place the commas! Second, although a serial comma would clarify that these peaceful leaders are not mass murderers, it’s not the only option. For example, you can just reorder the list: The speaker lineup will include the Dalai Lama, the pope and the world’s most famous serial killers.

But don’t get overly confident, Oxford comma enthusiasts! There are also many instances where the inclusion of a serial comma results in questionable sentences. Case in point:

The student thanked her principal, Kanye West, and her little brother.

I seriously hope Kanye is not in charge of a school. Here’s one possible revision: The student thanked her principal and her little brother, as well as Kanye West.

So … what should you do?
In short, use common sense. The most important consideration should be to convey the intended meaning.



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