The Oxford Comma

This is a comma: “,”.

It’s a very useful punctuation mark (things like periods (.), quotation marks (“), and explanation points (!)) in English and in many other languages, but it can also be a source of confusion.

The Oxford comma – also called the “serial comma” – is the comma placed right before the “and” or “or” when you have a list of three or more things.

For example:

1) “You can buy a car painted red, white, blue, and green.”

2) “We invited football players, Chris Hemsworth, and Madonna.”

The use of the Oxford comma is optional. Some people use it and some don’t. Most people will consider the sentence correct either way.

However, not using the Oxford comma can sometimes be confusing.

Written without the Oxford comma, sentence #1 has two meanings:

1) “You can buy a car painted red, white, blue and green.”

Meaning 1: You can buy a car in four colors: red or white or blue or green

Meaning 2:  You can buy a car in three colors: red or white or blue AND green (part of the car painted blue and part painted green)

Without the Oxford comma, the meaning is ambiguous (not clear).

There’s even more confusion with the second sentence without the Oxford comma.

2) “We invited football players, Chris Hemsworth and Madonna.”

Meaning 1: Three sets of people are invited: football players + Chris Hemsworth + Madonna

Meaning 2: Two football players are invited and their names are Chris Hemsworth and Madonna.

In other words, you are first describing the type of people who were invited (football players) and then naming the players invited (Chris Hemsworth and Madonna).

Without the Oxford comma, things can get pretty confusing. Yes, we have a choice, but I always use the Oxford comma because I think English is confusing enough.

We don’t need more doubt!


P.S. In case you’re wondering why it’s call the Oxford comma, it’s because this use of the comma has appeared in the Oxford University Press style manual, the written guide that gives rules on language for publishing. This manual has been used by a lot of organizations and publications.

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