The case for the Oxford comma

Of all the gripes that grammarians have, it’s often the smallest and seemingly most innocuous that annoy them the most.

Apostrophes and their correct use is one matter that keeps many sticklers for grammar awake at night. This is literally the case for the so-called ‘Grammar Vigilante’, a mystery night-time activist who seems to have committed a lot of his or her recent time to ridding Bristol of rogue or missing apostrophes.

Another small but important glyph that some people are very particular about is the comma, and an especially hotly debated topic is whether or not we should be using the Oxford or serial comma.

The Oxford comma is one that crops up in a list of three or more items between the penultimate and last of them. For example, in the two sentences below, the first is written without the Oxford comma and the second with:

“Traffic light colours are red, amber and green.”

“Traffic light colours are red, amber, and green.”

Strangely for something that carries the name of a British city, the Oxford comma is more favoured in the US than the UK, advocated by groups like the American Psychological Association.

It’s not often I say this, but I actually agree with the Americans on this one. The Oxford comma is generally shunned in UK English, but I think it aids the clarity of your writing. In the traffic light example it may not make a great deal of difference because it’s pretty clear which three colours we’re talking about, but what about the below?

“Popular crisp flavours include salt and vinegar, roast beef and cheese and onion.”

“Popular crisp flavours include salt and vinegar, roast beef, and cheese and onion.”

Here, because of the word ‘and’ being in the list, the Oxford comma certainly makes the three crisp flavours easier to understand. Without it, we might think ‘roast beef and cheese’ is one flavour and ‘onion’ is another.

Another example of where the Oxford comma can come in useful is depicted by this cartoon. The phrase “we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” could be read in a way that suggests JFK and Stalin were the strippers rather than individuals invited along with the strippers. This possible misunderstanding can be removed with a comma between ‘JFK’ and ‘Stalin’, although some may argue that a colon or em dash in place of a comma after ‘strippers’ would have the same effect.

Writing has to be all about clarity, and for that reason I support the use of the Oxford comma, but since it’s frowned upon in the UK, I can only really use it if I’m writing or editing for the other side of the Atlantic.

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