English Corner – The Oxford Comma

One of the key debates in English grammar is the role of the ‘serial’ comma or what’s otherwise popularly known as the ‘oxford’ comma. Depending on whom you might ask, there are constructive arguments to be made as to why the Oxford comma is useful or why it may not be necessary at all. It all depends upon your personal preference in using or not using this kind of comma but it is important to be aware of how it is used and why it is used. Having proper grammar is a key part into developing one’s fluency in English and the Oxford comma is often considered to be necessary to developing that skillset.

The Oxford or serial comma is the last comma for a list of things, people, or places. I’ve listed some examples as to make it clear what this kind of comma is. The Oxford comma is always the last comma and cannot be classified as a serial comma if there is only one comma in the sentence. There has to be at least two or more commas in the sentence to have an Oxford comma take its’ place as the serial comma.

Examples

  1. Please bring your books, pencils, and some paper to class tomorrow.
  2. Remind Jimmy, Patrick, and Tina that they have a Math test today.
  3. I had a salad, an appetizer, steak, and dessert at the restaurant tonight.

As you can see from the examples, the Oxford comma is highlighted and bolded as the last of the commas in the sentence whether the subject(s) are people, things, or places. The thing with the Oxford comma to understand is that it is not mandatory to use and that there is a lot of debate over whether it should be even used at all. The use of the Oxford comma is stylistic and different style guides differ in terms of their views on the serial comma.

For example, the AP style guide for English grammar does not mandate the use of the Oxford comma. However, this is in contrast to other style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or The Elements of Style, which mandate and support the use of the Oxford comma. Certain professional organizations and agencies such as the United States Government Printing Office and the American Medical Association are supportive of the Oxford comma and encourage its’ use in their employees. Depending upon whom you work for or what line of work you’re in, views on the Oxford comma are likely to differ.

The debate over the Oxford comma extends to across the pond in the United Kingdom where there is also a divide over if it should be used at all. The Oxford Style Manual and the MHRA Style guide support the use of the Oxford comma whereas well-known national publications such as The Times Style Manual and The Economist Style Guide oppose the use of the Oxford comma. When it comes to the serial (Oxford) comma, British and American style guides both fall on opposing sides of this debate.

The main argument in support of using the Oxford comma is based around how it can clear up any ambiguity that comes with using ‘and’ instead of another comma to finish up the sentence. Supporters of the Oxford comma generally wants to make them understood without confusing the audience regardless if they’re writing a newspaper article or a research paper. I’ll give you an example to see how a sentence’s meaning could be ambiguous without the Oxford comma being used.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney and Katy Perry.

Because there’s no Oxford comma here, it’s definitely strange if you read it out loud. Instead of the intended meaning being that you love your siblings separately and then you also love George Clooney and Katy Perry who are known celebrities, it comes off as being that your siblings are George Clooney (brother) and Katy Perry (sister) which is likely not true.

Let’s look at the same example with the Oxford comma implemented into the ending of the sentence.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry.

From this re-written example with the Oxford comma included, it becomes more clearly that the subject known, as ‘I’ loves his or her siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry. It’s clearly distinguished in this case that the siblings are not the famous celebrities and that they are separate people. However, if you are really opposed to the Oxford comma, you can re-structure the sentence so that it can make sense grammatically and you won’t have to insert the serial comma for it to work.

Example

I love George Clooney, Katy Perry and my siblings.

In this re-written example, you don’t need the Oxford comma to clear up the ambiguity.

Unlike other debates, this debate within English grammar about the Oxford comma will never end. There are always going to be supporters and opposition to its usage. However, it’s important that every English learner or teacher be adaptable to its usage or non-usage. If your student wants to use the Oxford comma, they should be able to because it’s apart of how they learned English grammar and they are technically allowed to do so. If the teacher doesn’t want to teach the Oxford comma to their English students, they also should not have to if they don’t believe in it. We can learn and teach English in a world where the Oxford comma can exist and not exist.

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