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Who Gives a #$&%* about an Oxford Comma? You Should!

Posted August 18, 2018 7:07 pm
I invited my parents, Nicholas Cage, and Diane Keaton.

There is a long-standing debate whether to use an Oxford comma when writing. The short answer: USE IT.

What is an Oxford comma, you ask? The best explanation I have seen for this comes from Strunk and White’s enduring writing guide, The Elements of Style:

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

red, white, and blue

gold, silver, or copper

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

Pay attention to where the commas are placed. In the first example, it’s red (comma) white (comma) and blue, not red (comma) white and blue. Why is that final comma used? Put simply, it’s placed there for clarity. Let’s look at another example:

Jeremy likes his pets, Tom Brady and Stephen King.

Does Jeremy have two pets named Tom Brady and Stephen King, or does Jeremy like all three of these things individually? As it’s written, we don’t know. If we’re judging by the commas, we would infer the former to be the meaning; however, when inserting that final comma, it becomes apparent that the latter is actually the meaning the writer wished to convey. Instead, we can write:

Jeremy likes his pets, Tom Brady, and Stephen King.

So, why is the Oxford comma up for debate? Opponents argue that if a sentence is initially confusing, you should just change the sentence. For example, I could change the above to read:

Jeremy likes Tom Brady, Stephen King and his pets.

While I could change the order of the words in this sentence and omit the comma, it then becomes unclear if Jeremy likes Stephen King and his own pets or Stephen King and Stephen King’s pets. I could create separate sentences:

Jeremy likes his pets. He also likes Tom Brady and Stephen King.

But in doing this, you lose the effectiveness and simplicity of the language. Additionally, authors sometimes prefer to list the importance or relevance of something in its respective order or create dialogue that’s consistent with how the words would be emphasized when spoken.

If you’re really struggling with the pain of adding that last comma, imagine resolving a court case for $5 million because of the lack of an Oxford comma (yes, this really did happen for a Maine dairy company in 2017).

While it’s unlikely that this comma will cost you millions, I’d recommend including it to avoid potentially confused readers.

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