The Oxford comma …



The Oxford comma (also called the Harvard comma or serial comma) is placed immediately before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, or nor) in a series of 3 or more items. It is optional, left to the discretion of the writer, but is generally used to avoid ambiguity. Apparently, it’s use is common in non-journalistic prose, standard in the US and, not often used in the UK, Australia, or South Africa. Without it, however, meanings of sentences can change completely. Look at this example:

“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister.”

“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister, and Finance Minister.”

Without the comma, the sentence reads as if only 2 pictures were taken.

You know this. Right? Then why do I mention it?

Well, it seems up until recently I have been using it incorrectly. Somewhere along the line, I learned to put the comma following the conjunctive. I would write:

“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister and, Finance Minister.”

I was adamant this was correct. If you were to ask me, I would get into a heated, academic argument with you. However, I can not find any evidence that this is correct. Either my grade school teacher got it wrong, or I misunderstood.

Why didn’t someone correct me? I wrote a lot of papers at university. I have written a lot of business publications, emails, letters. Why didn’t someone notice? Maybe I am not the only one.

Do you use the Oxford comma, and if so, do you use it correctly?


17 thoughts on “The Oxford comma …

  1. If you watch the Big Band Theory, specifically the episode where the women go to the comic book store, you might remember the scene where they ask Stuart “who is the best superhero?” or something like that. He cautions them to speak softly as they might start a rumble.
    Where am I going with this?
    I am an ESL teacher, and questions like this start incredible fights, huge internet searches and ongoing debates. While sometimes lively, it can also get pretty intense. So, on this non working day, I decline to answer.
    Good luck everyone else.

  2. I just stumbled on the Oxford comma myself, and started, to, use, it, or try to anyway (chuckle).

    I look at it this way. I own a construction company and now an apparel company. I put a ton (tonne?) of miles on my bike and write a blog because it makes me happy… If I miss a comma, or misplace one, from time to time, I’m okay with it.

    I’ll leave the correct answers to those who have the time to contemplate the comma’s proper usage. That surely is not me.

    This isn’t a slight on your asking the question, this comment. I’m trying to make light of the controversy in respect to that which really matters. In other words, I’m on the fence.

    • Like you, I blog because I enjoy it. However, when I read a post with a spelling mistake or incorrect grammar, I’m distracted. If it happens regularly, I may even avoid the blogger’s posts. I’m not always successful, but I try to write as succinctly and accurately as I can. I believe I have used the serial commas incorrectly for decades, and am simply looking for clarity.

      • I share your desire to get it right and I also understand your exasperation with poor grammar. On the other hand, when it comes to the finer points I’m okay with the fact that I’m usually not smart enough to catch it. 😎

  3. I don’t use the Oxford comma, simply because that wasn’t how my grammar books in school wanted me to use a comma. It always looks slightly weird to me when people use it, I feel like it is redundant. It is true that it can instantly clarify a list like you pointed out, so I don’t really care either way, but I skip it because it doesn’t feel natural to me.

  4. Obvious answer is either, you are not from Oxford, or, no one from Oxford told you. Now that I have been told I will be confusing people or getting in o heated arguments. Cool, but, I’m not from Oxford. Cheers, and a great way to start my day, thank you:)

  5. I was taught that the 2nd comma is not used before the 3rd item. I taught high school English for a few years and I taught my students that it wasn’t necessary. In your example sentence, it may help clarify, although the word “the” before Finance Minister would do the same thing without the comma. Like all languages, English is in flux and the rules change with new usages and new words (thank you computer age) and overall usage. The word “got” is a good example. We almost all use it wrong. “I’ve got.” Nope it’s supposed to be “I have”, but it’s become standard usage. Flux.

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