January 2021

For my first main blog post of 2021, I decided to talk about something causing great division. It splits nations, families, friends and work colleagues. Both sides are fervently in favour of their view and disdainful of the other’s.

I am, of course, talking about the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma or the serial comma (1)) is a comma inserted in a list before the ‘and’ or the ‘or’. The UK tends towards not using it, although the OUP style guide (and from where it gets its name) requires its use. The US tends towards using it.

Here’s an example of it in use:

“I went shopping and bought carrots, potatoes, and cheese.”

The anti-Oxford comma lobby would baulk at this sentence. They’d get their red pens out and amend it to make:

“I went shopping and bought carrots, potatoes and cheese.”

The Oxford comma came about since it was felt some sentences needed it to aid understanding. Unfortunately, inclusion of the Oxford comma can sometimes create confusion. This is why opinion is divided on the matter.

In the example above, many feel the ‘and’ is sufficient and to include a comma is overkill. Those in support of the comma say that the lack of a comma could mean the sentence is read differently to how it was meant. In the example given it is fairly clear but what if the sentence was the below?

“I went shopping with my sisters, Paul and Thomas.”

The lack of the Oxford comma here could mean the sentence is read to mean my sisters are called Paul and Thomas. Let’s add an Oxford comma.

“I went shopping with my sisters, Paul, and Thomas.”

It emphasises the fact I am shopping with Paul and Thomas, as well as my sisters.

I am anti-Oxford comma (may have just reduced my potential client base by 50% …) and so I would argue a rephrasing of the sentence would work better than inserting the Oxford comma. It could be “I went shopping with Paul, Thomas and my sisters.” Or better yet, why not use the names of your sisters? “I went shopping with Sue, Lucy, Paul and Thomas.”

Does this all matter? Well, no not really.(2) It’s unlikely the two sides will meet in a muddy field, raise their standards and fight to the bitter bloody end over it. But it is important for an organisation to have a view on it.

Consistency in your written material is important, so it is worth deciding whether or not to use the Oxford comma and stick to it. Publishers will have a style guide which will provide writers with the publisher’s preference.

Having a preference to, let’s say, not use the Oxford comma, means its inclusion can aid clarity and most likely vice versa. This is another reason to get a professional proofreader to check your work. If you’re unsure on whether it needs an Oxford comma, I can help.

When you’re trying to get your message across, clarity is key. Whether you use the Oxford comma or not, let’s make sure its inclusion or omission is based on clarity rather than hard-and-fast dogmatic styling.

(1) Can’t even agree on what to call it…

(2) Does allow some good jokes.

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert of WordPerfectProof.