The Oxford Comma: The Splice of Life

Debates among writers, editors, teachers, and others who use English are common. One of the longest-standing debates is that over the Oxford comma, aka the serial comma.

People arguing over a punctuation mark? As silly as it sounds, it’s been going on for decades.

If you’re not aware of this debate, we don’t want you to miss out on the fun and fastidiousness. Here’s an overview of the Oxford comma and why you might choose to use it.

What is the Oxford comma?

Oxford shirt, Oxford shoes … Oxford comma. Nope, the comma’s not related. But like certain fashions, the serial comma is adored by some and hated by others.
In short, the Oxford comma is the optional comma before the final conjunction in a list or series.


No worries; we’ll break it down for you.

When listing items in a written sentence, you use commas to separate the items, just as you’d normally pause between the items when speaking. (Note: Commas don’t always represent pauses in speech. To use commas this way is to use them incorrectly. However, in the case of listing items, there’s a parallel between verbal pauses and commas.)

Here’s an example of a sentence that contains a list of two items:

I need to buy wine and toilet paper for the party.

Let’s add one more item to that list:

I need to buy eggs, wine, and toilet paper for the party.

Aside from the odd shopping list (sounds like one crazy party!), did you notice anything unusual about that sentence? If you did, it’s probably because you’re not a supporter of the Oxford comma.

Here’s the same sentence without the Oxford comma:

I need to buy eggs, wine and toilet paper for the party.

This second version of the sentence is neither right nor wrong–just as the first isn’t either, either.

You see, English isn’t like math. The language isn’t governed 100 percent by hard rules. Whereas grammar is the science of English, style is the art of it.

And where serial commas are concerned, there are two schools of thought when it comes to style.

The philosophy of the Oxford comma is that a list should be consistent, with punctuation between each pair of items.

Those who argue against serial commas use this logic: A list of two items has no comma (e.g., I need to buy wine and toilet paper). So that shouldn’t change just because we add an item (e.g., I need to buy eggs, wine and toilet paper). The punctuation is only needed for three or more items.

The problem is that this latter reasoning doesn’t always hold up so well. You can find or come up with many examples of why the Oxford comma is usually the better choice.

Why use the Oxford comma?

Fans of the Oxford comma maintain that skipping it causes confusion in some cases. Let’s say you’re emailing a friend about some photos you took on your last vacation. You might write the following sentence:

I’ll send you some photos of my grandparents, a hitchhiker and a skunk.

The way this sentence is structured, it implies that you have some highly unusual DNA! In other words, using one comma here implies that one of your parents is the offspring of a hitchhiker and a skunk (let’s not picture the details).

But this surely wasn’t your intended meaning. And if you were to come across such a sentence by another writer, it should give you pause (pun intended).

Let’s see what happens when we add an Oxford comma:

I’ll send you some photos of my grandparents, a hitchhiker, and a skunk.

This sentence clearly states that you took photos of at least four subjects (depending on how many grandparents you captured in your shots). The hitchhiker and the skunk aren’t your grandparents.
This example illustrates why many people feel the Oxford comma should be mandatory in writing.

The history of the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma is so named because it was used at Oxford University Press, the largest university press on the planet. Ironically, British writers seem to use the Oxford comma less than Americans do, which is why it stands out in the UK as an Oxford-prescribed guideline.

Many professional writers and editors have opined on the use of the Oxford comma. Some language lovers claim that adding one comma to a sentence can’t hurt and can only help in terms of clarity. Those on the other side of the fence feel that serial commas are prissy and unnecessary.

However, consider that a 2014 lawsuit, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, revolved around a serial comma ambiguity. A list of labor activities exempt from overtime pay was open to misinterpretation. Hence, the dairy was ordered to pay $5 million in overtime wages to workers who performed the activities in the gray area.

If you’re in doubt, it’s usually worth it to add that comma.

The Oxford comma in popular style guides

So what do the big style guides have to say about such commas? Here’s a quick comparison of two major guides: Chicago and AP.

The Oxford comma according to The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style is a trustworthy guide for literature and academic writing. CMOS generally prescribes the Oxford comma, stating that it prevents confusion such as that shown above.

However, in some cases, as CMOS points out, even the Oxford comma can’t clarify a sentence. Recasting may be necessary at times. Look at this example:

I emailed my father, the president, and the director of the FBI.

In this sentence, it’s not clear as to whether your father is the president or a separate individual. In such a case, you can reword the sentence as follows:

I emailed my father as well as the president and the director of the FBI.


I emailed the president, the director of the FBI, and my father.

(Reordering works only if the first two items are clearly separate and your readers know that the president doesn’t head the FBI.)

The Oxford comma according to the AP Stylebook

The AP Stylebook, the style bible of journalists and online writers, says not to use the Oxford comma in a simple series unless it’s needed to prevent confusion.

This is because traditionally, printed newspapers had space concerns when it came to adding text to a layout. Eliminating a few commas throughout a story might keep a story from running over into another column or page.

But AP admits that adding a comma before the final conjunction in a list makes sense in many cases.

Oxford commas: the choice is yours

If you’re writing a professional or academic article that must follow a chosen style guide, follow the Oxford comma rule in your guide. Some company style guides even instruct writers to generally follow AP style but to buck AP and use the Oxford comma.

In your personal or general business writing, you’re free to comma as you wish. Just be aware that your friends and colleagues may comment.

As with most style guidelines, when it comes to the Oxford comma, the most important thing is to commit to using it. Anyway you splice it, it’s hard to criticize attentively produced, consistent writing.

  • Hmmm. Only academics would deny use of common sense. It never occurred to me that a grandparent could have a skunk in their lineage. The mention of DNA shows you know this, too. Can’t happen. Again, the likelihood of your father being president, is so small, that I think I would know the answer to that one, with or without commas.
    Errors creep in due to human frailty – not commas. The use of ‘don’t,’ as in emergency instructions – ‘don’t run,’ means a fair number of people will run. We tend to ignore negations. No one is sure why. The order to the Light Brigade was probably, ‘Don’t charge,’ That wasn’t what the bugler heard.
    ‘Don’t use silly commas,’ should ensure the longevity of the Oxford comma.

    • Just because the examples given in this article can be deduced with a small amount of logic DOESN’T mean that other, more mundane sentences are as easily deduced. The problem with your logic is that it hinges on an absolute logical conclusion, yet everything does not have such an irrefutable answer. Even still, we cannot determine the true intent of the author unless the Oxford comma is used. That is to say, without the Oxford comma, we cannot definitively say that the author of the sentence, “I’ll send you some photos of my grandparents, a hitchhiker and a skunk,” doesn’t actually believe that one of his grandparents is a rodent. Without the Oxford comma, there is an irremovable uncertainty. I would advise that you don’t keep writing poorly, yet, as you stated, that probably won’t help.

      • Context is key. If you’re trying to communicate and want to maximize your chances of being understood, then the Oxford comma is essential. In a text to a friend grammar isn’t as necessary to being understood.

    • I feel that this rule would be for nonfiction, realistic fiction, and such. I, myself, am an avid fantasy and mystery reader- and it is entirely possible in such a context for grandparents not to be human and for your father to be the president. In fact, I do believe I have read many stories with similar plots. Therefore, I believe we can agree to disagree on such a rule. Also, writing should be full of clarity, especially if you might be writing in a professional setting. Though I do agree that the examples in this article are not applicable to this situation, Oxford commas should still be used to avoid issues and simply not sound unclear and unprofessional. They have mentioned a situation where the lack of an Oxford comma led to a lawsuit. However, Oxford commas are a writer’s choice- as writing is an art form, where experimentation is allowed and is to be used to express oneself. If you do not like them, that’s up to you! Happy writing!

  • Another great example is a shopping list with some simple groceries.
    No Oxford comma:
    I’m going to the store to buy pizza, and macaroni and cheese. (This version has only two items on the grocery list)
    Oxford comma:
    I’m going to the store to buy pizza, and macaroni, and cheese. (This version has three items on the grocery list)
    While I, personally, would never use an ‘and’ for the second item, as it is redundant, some people do still use it and thus need an Oxford comma to help clarify their sentence.

    • While I agree that the Oxford comma is necessary, your examples are faulty because, in the first example, if we assume that macaroni and cheese is a singular item, then there is no need for the first comma, and it is, in fact, a grammatical error; whereas, in the second example, we are to assume that all three items are separate, which renders the first “and” unnecessary.

    • Never say never… Don’t use a comma before “and” or “but” except, as clearly explained in the text above, to avoid misunderstanding and confusion. Use common sense 🙂

    • And i was taught by an old school teacher, she was positive you were to use comas, it let the reader flow with the sentence.not every pause in. Spoken language deserves a coma when the words are written down, but as you read back your work its easy at times, to figure out where they go. Yeah sometimes I’m wrong, but I’d rater have that extra one in my story, than not have one where its really needed. I love our language, writing, conveying thoughts, relating to others, teaching and entertaining. It can be such a beautiful thing, yet ugly too. All in the beholders heart.

      • Please keep this space a positive area for all to express themselves freely. You may not care, but there is no need to be negative and rude

  • A book, ‘Eats shoots and leaves.’ referring to a panda, I believe, is the perfect example of the Oxford comma used for clarity. ‘Eats, shoots, and leaves’ is a very different prospect!

    • This is an adorable, hilarious, and overall amazing example! I’m most likely going to remember this. Thank you!

  • You KNOW that you were supposed to end this article with a sentence that utilized the Oxford comma! Do better. Lol. Well written, really. As an Oxford Comma lover and CMOS fan, this piece was right up my alley. Thanks.

  • This is the first time I have heard about the Oxford comman by name! However, in my writings, I have always been cautious about the use of commas to make sure that meaning is neither lost nor impaired.
    I find this explanation to be very clear and very useful.

  • Thank You for your article! I’ve had a personal controversy over using commas for a long time and you helped settle that battle.

  • “As with most style guidelines, when it comes to the Oxford comma, the most important thing is to commit to using it. Anyway you splice it, it’s hard to criticize attentively produced, consistent writing.”

    Amen, amen, amen!!!

  • I think you should always use the comma (ie wine, and toilet paper – to distinguish from paper both for wine and for toilets). Eats shoots, and leaves.

  • >
    Send this to a friend