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The Oxford comma

Hoo boy, now there’s a contentious subject.

Raised as I was with English literature and writing, I was – until recently – a vehement opponent of the Oxford comma.

And I love commas.

But I must confess I’ve come round to the idea and admit that the occasional Oxford comma helps to avoid confusion.

What is the Oxford comma?, I hear someone ask.

(More to the point, why is it called an Oxford comma, since it’s a very American* feature?***)

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma, which makes more sense.

It’s a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, and before ‘and’ or ‘or’.

For example, “an orange, an apple, and a pear”. “Chocolate éclair, lemon meringue, or rhubarb crumble”.

I always thought that final comma in a list was unnecessary. What misunderstanding could possibly arise from a list citing an orange, an apple and a pear?

Well, none, since that’s a fairly benign and simple sentence.

But let’s look at a sentence shared by renowned writer and editor Benjamin Dreyer about Donald Trump:

The highlights of his waning administration include encounters with Rudy Giuliani, a healthcare disaster and a dildo collector.

​What does that sentence say to you? It could be merely a list of three items – but it could be explaining that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is a healthcare disaster and dildo collector.

And litigation fears would make that claim undesirable.

The serial comma is almost obligatory in American English, its ability to resolve ambiguity being the most powerful argument for its use.

However, that litigious statement about Mr Giuliani could simply be rearranged to state:

“The highlights of his waning administration include encounters with a healthcare disaster, a dildo collector and Rudy Giuliani.”

No misunderstandings there, surely.

In fact, as the Wikipedia page points out, the serial comma can introduce ambiguity. The example it uses says:

“They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.”

Is that a list of three things? Or is Betty a maid?

Which is why the Oxford/serial comma is not obligatory in British English and can be used at the writer’s/editor’s discretion.

Are you a fan of this grammar tool?

* This is my opinion. I’m going to look this up and confirm**.
** Wikipedia says I’m right: “British English allows constructions with or without this comma, while in American English it is common and sometimes even considered mandatory to use the comma.”
*** It was first mandated for use in Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford [my emphasis]

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