The Oxford comma is a type of punctuation that is hotly debated among certain English-speaking writers, reporters, teachers and academics. Using or not using the Oxford comma may cause confusion, depending on the circumstance. We will examine the definition of the Oxford comma, how it got its name, who was the first to encourage its use, and some examples of its use in sentences.
An Oxford comma is used before the coordinating conjunction in a sentence that includes a list of three or more items. For this reason, an Oxford comma is also known as a serial comma. Only the comma that appears before the coordinating conjunction is known as the Oxford comma or serial comma:
The four seasons are spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The four seasons are spring, summer, fall and winter.
In this instance, the Oxford comma appears in the first sentence after the word “fall”. The meaning does not change depending on the use or omission of the Oxford comma. The sentence acknowledges four seasons, and the names of these four seasons are obvious whether or not the Oxford comma is used.
Another example in which the use of the Oxford comma does matter:
The food at the picnic included sandwiches, pickles, potato chips, deviled eggs, fried chicken, and brownies.
The food at the picnic included sandwiches, pickles, potato chips, deviled eggs, fried chicken and brownies.
The Oxford comma appears after the word “chicken” in the first sentence, which lists each individual component of the picnic lunch. In the second sentence, “fried chicken and brownies”, without the Oxford comma, implies that the brownies were fried as well as the chicken. While someone reading this list who is familiar with the proper way to cook these items may assume that the adjective fried only applies to the chicken and not the brownies, the sentence is not clear enough for all readers to properly understand the information.
There are some famous instances in which an Oxford comma should have been used. The omission makes for comical reading:
I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
The Oxford comma is so named because its use was heavily encouraged by men working for the Oxford University Press. Horace Hart wrote Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905 as a style guide for the Oxford University Press, which included using a comma before a coordinating conjunction. F. Howard Collins also mentioned the use of this comma in Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists, published in 1912. However, it was Peter H. Sutcliffe who first used the term Oxford comma in his book The Oxford University Press: An informal history, published in 1978. Note that Oxford is capitalized as it is a proper noun, but the word comma is not capitalized.
Whether or not one uses the Oxford comma depends on the style guide that one follows. Generally, journalists do not use the Oxford comma, while academics tend to favor its use. Choose whether or not you will use the Oxford comma in your document and be consistent. Use of the Oxford comma may be very important in technical and academic situations.