To Comma or Not to Comma: That Is the Oxford!

The Grammar Diva

The Grammar Diva

We invited the two supermodels, President Obama and Vice President Biden to the party.

What’s that? Read that again? When you read that sentence, it might appear that President Obama and Vice President Biden are supermodels. Well, while some may think so, probably not. Try putting a comma between Obama and and. Clearer? Should be. Now, you can tell that two supermodels were invited to the party and so were the President and Vice President. Four people, not two.

That comma makes all the difference. That comma is called the “series comma,” or by its more lofty name, the Oxford comma. It is thus named because it was first used by the Oxford University Press. It is that comma before the and that introduces the final item in a series within a sentence. In the United States, it is common to use the Oxford comma. And although it is obviously used by Oxford University, most of the rest of England shuns its use. Most of the time, it makes no difference whether or not you use it, and it is a matter of personal choice. Here is an example:

The bowl contained apples, oranges, grapes, and strawberries. OR

The bowl contained apples, oranges, grapes and strawberries.

Most of the time, it really makes no difference whether or not you use it . Sometimes, such as in the example at the beginning of this post, the sentence is confusing and misleading unless you use the comma. Less commonly (in my opinion, since I am pro-Oxford comma), it is confusing to use it. Look at this example:

Attending the meeting were Mr. Jones, Mrs. Greene, Mr. Level, the mayor, and Mr. Falk. 

Those who are anti-Oxford comma would say that the comma before the and is confusing and makes it look as though there are five people attending the meeting.  They say that if you remove the comma before and, it becomes obvious that Mr. Level is the mayor, and there are only four people attending the meeting:

Attending the meeting were Mr. Jones, Mrs. Greene, Mr. Level, the mayor and Mr. Falk.

In my (not so) humble opinion, it is confusing either way. That’s what semi-colons are for (well, one thing they are for): to separate the main items in a series where there might already be commas:

Attending the meeting were Mr. Jones; Mrs. Greene; Mr. Level, the mayor; and Mr. Falk. 

In the above sentence we can tell for sure that Mr. Level is indeed the mayor.

Attending the meeting were Mr. Jones, Mrs. Greene, Mr. Level, the mayor, and Mr. Falk.

And now in the above sentence, we know that he is NOT the mayor. 

However, as long as you make exceptions when your meaning isn’t clear, it is up to you whether or not you use the Oxford comma. Some find that it clutters writing (Oh, really! It is so small!)

There is no right way or wrong way. The only thing is to be consistent. Once you have decided which way you will do things within a piece of writing (with the exception of clearing up fuzzy meanings by adding it or removing it) either use it or don’t.

For more information on the Oxford comma, you may want to look at these:

Monkey See – Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe … For Now

The Oxford Comma: Hart’s Rule

and if you dare….

Vampire Weekend:Oxford Comma Lyrics

 

 

 

 

 

 

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