27 January 2020

The "Oxford comma" - updated

In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called Oxford comma and Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.

For example, a list of three countries might be punctuated either as "France, Italy, and Spain" (with the serial comma), or as "France, Italy and Spain" (without the serial comma)...  It is used less often in British English, but some British style guides require it, including The Oxford Style Manual...

The style that always uses the serial comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the apocryphal book dedication quoted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
There is ambiguity about the writer's parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as in apposition to my parents, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. A comma before and removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

An example collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:
Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
The Times once published an unintentionally humorous description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, noting that "highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector". This would still be ambiguous if a serial comma were added, as Mandela could then be mistaken for a demigod, although he would be precluded from being a dildo collector.
Much more at the link.

RelatedIs the semicolon an endangered symbol? 

Reposted from 2017 to add the photo above, from an article in The Guardian reporting on the controversy over the absence of an Oxford comma on the new Brexit 50p coin:
It is a debate that has torn the nation in two, ripped friends and family apart, and entrenched deep and uncrossable lines throughout the land. Should the Royal Mint have used an Oxford comma on its Brexit 50p piece?..

... early responses include His Dark Materials novelist Philip Pullman’s criticism of its punctuation.
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.
It seems appropriate to close with this observation by Lynne Truss, author of the delightful style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves*:
"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken." 
 *read this book if you enjoy the English language.


  1. The Onion is on the case:


  2. I edit as a sideline, and I tend to eschew the final comma UNLESS there is ambiguity. And, I tend to repeat antecedents to pronouns more often than, perhaps, others might, for the same reason.


    1. And (no comma) you used four commas in your second sentence. Was the first one by standard convention, or a reflection of your personal style? Just asking, because I not infrequently start blogpost sentences with "and".

  3. the nuns taught us to use the serial comma, so it must be right. because, you know that the nuns were never wrong.


  4. As a non-native speaker the debate over the Oxford comma bewilders me, as it is unique to the English language, while the ambiguity exists in every language. In other languages, people just put an extra comma in to prevent the ambiguity, or just giggle at the ambiguity and move on with their lives.

    So, I'm wondering: Is there such a thing as an Oxford semicolon in long complicated phrases where you upgraded your commas to semicolons?

  5. Disclaimer...the following brought to you by fireball whiskey.
    You are never wrong using the Oxford comma but seriously I think we go overboard with the punctuation. Use it only in case of ambiguity.
    Having read "The Road" it was so refreshing to see the minimal use of punctuation and so jarring returning to the normal usage.

  6. Proud supporter of the Oxford comma, for its aid in battling ambiguity. With the Oxford: You invite the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to your party. Without it: You invite the strippers, JFK and Stalin to your party. Are JFK and Stalin the strippers? You can't know, because there's no Oxford comma. And I don't know about you, but I don't want JFK and Stalin stripping at my party.

    Preserve the Oxford comma.


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