Using the Serial (or “Oxford”) Comma
  • 2-minute read
  • 4th September 2014

Using the Serial (or “Oxford”) Comma

The band Vampire Weekend once memorably sang words to the effect of “who gives a monkey’s about an Oxford comma?” Well, we do, and the person reading and grading your paper will too!

What Is the Oxford (or Serial) Comma?

Overlooked by many, the Oxford (or serial) comma is a useful tool in writing. It is so-called because it is recommended by the Oxford University Press style guide. We use the Oxford comma primarily to avoid ambiguity in lists.

To be specific, an Oxford comma is a comma used before the final “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items. We would thus use it like this:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

Although a final comma is not strictly necessary here, you should still add it if your college’s style guide specifies using Oxford/serial commas.

Why Use the Oxford Comma?

To see why the Oxford comma is sometimes necessary for clarity, we can take a look at a list where the final item is potentially ambiguous:

The most important things in my life are my friends, God and Michael Jordon.

Here, for example, it is unclear whether the speaker is referring to three distinct things or simply identifying God and Michael Jordan as her friends. Adding the serial comma removes this ambiguity by showing that each one is a separate item in the list:

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The most important things in my life are my friends, God, and Michael Jordon.

The Oxford comma is also useful when one item in a list includes “and” or “or” already, as it can clarify the divisions. For instance, take the sentence:

My favorite activities are basketball, singing and dancing and acrobatics.

We know from the repeated “and” here that either “singing and dancing” or “dancing and acrobatics” are meant to be taken together. But the list doesn’t make clear which. Adding the Oxford comma solves this:

My favorite activities are basketball, singing and dancing, and acrobatics.

Be sure to check your style guide, too, as some institutions have specific rules regarding use of the Oxford comma.

And if you would like more grammar advice, or someone to look over your writing, get in touch with the professionals at Proofed today!

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