Most style guides have a simple yes or no rule on using the Oxford comma. But should you use it when following Associated Press (AP) style? The short answer is… sometimes. In today’s post, we’ll break down the use of Oxford commas in AP style.
What Is the Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma (or serial comma) is the one used before and to separate the last two items in a list of three or more items. Grammatically, it’s almost never necessary, so its use is widely debated. Consider these examples:
I’m going to the store to pick up eggs, sugar, and butter.
I’m going to the store to pick up eggs, sugar and butter.
Both of these are correct. Some people argue that the Oxford comma lends clarity and makes the sentence flow better while others argue that any unnecessary punctuation should always be cut.
Ultimately, it comes down to preference. But if you’re following a style guide or adhering to certain English dialects, the guidelines will usually include whether to use Oxford commas.
AP Style and the Oxford Comma: To Use or not to Use?
Don’t Use It in Simple Lists
Journalists and the press use the AP Stylebook extensively. Back when newspapers were available in print form only, every space on the page counted. For this reason, unnecessary punctuation had to be cut, including the Oxford comma.
AP style, then, generally advises against using the Oxford comma. However, this rule applies to simple lists only. The items in a simple list are brief, so no confusion will arise if you don’t use an Oxford comma:
We’re traveling to New York, Boston and Chicago this summer.
This pizza has pepperoni, mushrooms and extra cheese.
Sally, Jane and Mary are all wearing pink.
Do Use It With Conjunctions
For lists that contain conjunctions, AP style does recommend using the Oxford comma. For example:
We have peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese, and bacon and tomato sandwiches.
The elements in this list each contain a conjunction (and), so the Oxford comma helps to clarify which conjunction is meant to separate the last item from the preceding ones.
Do Use It With Complex Phrases
In lengthy passages or complex phrases (where the items in the list comprise more than a few words), you should also use an Oxford comma. For example:
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We walked down a tree-lined street, which had lots of pretty houses, to the bus stop on the corner, waited for the bus that travels north and south across town, rode it to the library downtown, and arrived just a few minutes before closing time.
Since this sentence is pretty elaborate and each item in the list is lengthy, the Oxford comma helps to break it up and make it flow smoothly.
Do Use It When a List Can Create Ambiguity
In AP style, you should also use the Oxford comma when the meaning of the sentence would be ambiguous or unclear without it. Most style guides recommend the same approach, though some may suggest rearranging the sentence instead.
Take a look at this sentence:
I invited my parents, Linda and Jeff.
I invited my parents, Linda, and Jeff.
Without the Oxford comma, it sounds as though Linda and Jeff are the parents. With it, it’s clear that they’re not. The Oxford comma helps to clear up potential confusion.
Who knew a tiny piece of punctuation could cause such debate? If you’re following the AP style guide, we hope you now feel confident about using (and not using) the Oxford comma!
And be sure to send your writing our way once you finish a draft. Our expert editors will be happy to check it against your style guide and ensure perfect grammar, spelling, consistency, and clarity. Try out our service for free with your 500-word sample!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma is the one used before and to separate the last two items in a list of three or more: We’re having pasta, salad, and bread.
When should you use the Oxford comma in AP style?
AP style recommends not using the Oxford comma except in lists where meaning may be ambiguous without it or where complex phrases or other conjunctions appear.