While Oxford commas are strictly optional, different style guides will tell you different things about them. Simply put, an Oxford comma is a comma that comes before a conjunction such as “and,” “but,” or “if.” Journalists often dispense with it, but doing so can make their writing more difficult to understand.
I had a client who queried my use of this useful little punctuation mark for any reason, but when I showed him what consequences could befall if it was omitted (and proved that it really is acceptable to use it) he had to give in. Actually, he told me he was quite relieved because his boss often used it and he had been forcibly restraining himself from saying anything about the ‘error.’
Can You Put a Comma Before ‘And’?
Not only can you place a comma before an ‘and,’ sometimes it’s important you do. Let’s look at some of the ways an Oxford comma can help to prevent you from saying something outrageous you didn’t really mean. Take a look at this sentence:
“I called my parents, my counselor and my teacher.”
There’s nothing wrong with it, but if I didn’t know you, I might think that your counselor and your teacher were your parents. Are you confused? Well, let’s say your parents are called John and Mary. How would you say you spoke to them? You’d probably say:
“I spoke to my parents, John and Mary.”
Do you see where the comma is? Now let’s assume that John and Mary aren’t your parents, but that you spoke to them as well as speaking to your parents.
“I spoke to my parents, John, and Mary.”
In this sentence, it’s an Oxford comma which clarifies exactly who you happen to be talking to.
The lack of an Oxford comma might add some extra confusion as to who you are talking to:
“I had fish, coffee and dessert.”
“I had fish, coffee, and desert”
If we were to split hairs, my first sentence could be me talking to my coffee and dessert in order to tell them I had fish. The second example is clearer and shows I had all three of these things and I’m not actually talking to any of them.
If you aren’t convinced yet, here are some real-life examples when journalists probably should have used the Oxford comma when writing their article headlines.
“World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same sex marriage date set.”
The lack of a comma is the difference from worldwide breaking news and a recap of what happened that particular day. Obama to marry Castro? Who would have thought it? A simple Oxford comma would have eliminated any confusion.
Here’s another example. The Times of London reported that Peter Ustinov went on a tour and met a number of interesting people – or perhaps he met a single one who had habits we never knew about:
“Highlights of his global tour included encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demi-god and a dildo collector.”
We always knew Mandela was old when he passed away, but nobody knew he was 800 years old, and he had an affinity for collecting sex toys. The insertion of the Oxford comma would have kept many people from taking a double-take when reading that sentence.
There are those who hate the Oxford comma. The AP style guide says that the serial comma or Oxford comma is wrong. Other style guides say that it’s OK and that it can eliminate confusion as to your meaning. Generally speaking, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. While some people get quite passionate about arguing for or against this little punctuation mark coming before a conjunction, it’s not worth getting worked up about either way in most situations. What’s important to remember is there are instances where adding it can eliminate ambiguity.
(Photo courtesy of Dave Bezaire)