Oxford (Serial) Comma – When to Use It

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The Oxford comma is a grammatical rule that may greatly impact how your writing reads. Many people are unaware of this grammatical convention, which means they tend to misuse it.

However, the Oxford comma is an essential part of standard English grammar and should be used sparingly to improve readability and avoid ambiguity.

Oxford (Serial) Comma – In a Nutshell

The most important aspects of the Oxford comma are summarized in the following:

  • The purpose of the Oxford comma is to clarify lists and avoid ambiguity.
  • It is also called a serial comma in American English.
  • American English styles generally recommend using serial commas
  • British English styles usually don’t recommend using serial commas unless it is necessary to specify a meaning

Definition: Oxford (serial) comma

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma in American English.

If more than two items are listed in a sentence, a comma should be used before the “and” that introduces the final item in that list. This comma’s purpose is to present a sentence’s correct meaning and avoid ambiguity. 1

Avoiding ambiguities with the Oxford comma

The Oxford (serial) comma is one of the most common punctuations in English grammar.

Even though this comma may not change the grammatical correctness of a sentence, the lack of it may lead to ambiguity in your writing.

Thus, incorporating the Oxford comma may help you avoid wrong expressions and improve your writing style.

Example of clarifying lists with the Oxford comma

Ambiguous version:

  • She loves her sisters, Rihanna and Beyoncé.

Without the Oxford comma, it may be depicted that her sisters are named Rihanna and Beyoncé.


Specified version:

  • She loves her sisters, Rihanna, and Beyoncé.

With the Oxford comma, the meaning changes. In the specified version, it is expressed that she loves her sisters and two other people, Rihanna and Beyoncé.2

The Oxford comma in American vs. British English

American English style guides usually urge you to use the Oxford (serial) comma when listing three or more items.

Example:

  • I like candy, fries, and chocolate.

In contrast, British English style guides usually urge you to leave the Oxford (serial) comma out.

Example:

  • I like sweets, chips and chocolate.

However, when it is necessary to involve an Oxford (serial) comma to avoid ambiguity, both, American and British style guides, recommend using it.

Example:

  • I am going out with my dogs, Peter and Oscar.

As this sentence may be understood as either that the dogs are named Peter and Oscar or you going out with the dogs and two other people, who are called Peter and Oscar, the Oxford (serial) comma is relevant to use in order to express the correct meaning.

Example:

  • I am going out with my dogs, Peter, and Oscar.

Here, the sentence expresses that you are going out with the dogs and two people named Peter and Oscar.3

In sum:

American English The comma is mostly used in lists.
British English The comma is only used to clarify the meaning of a sentence.4

FAQs

The Oxford (serial) comma is placed before the “and” that introduces the last subject in a list of at least three.

In the U.S., it is also known as the serial comma and is much more used than in British English.

If you’re unsure whether to use an Oxford (serial) comma, try writing out your sample sentences with and without it. This will give you a better overview of whether the sentences are ambiguous or not.

If a sentence has two different meanings, it may be relevant to add an Oxford (serial) comma in order to clarify its intended meaning.

In order to avoid ambiguity, you may use the Oxford comma to clarify the intended meanings of lists. For example:

Without an Oxford comma:

  • He wants to visit his parents, Brady and Simone.

Here, it may be depicted that his parents are called Brady and Simone.


With an Oxford comma: 

  • He wants to visit his parents, Brady, and Simone.

Here, it may be depicted that he wants to visit his parents and two other people called Brady and Simone.

When three or more items are listed, the Oxford (serial) comma is used much more in American English than in British English.

In British English, the Oxford (serial) comma is only used when it is necessary to clarify meaning and avoid ambiguities.

Sources

1 Edwards, Ann. “What Is the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma)?” Grammarly. Accessed November 14, 2022. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/what-is-the-oxford-comma-and-why-do-people-care-so-much-about-it/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwlK-WBhDjARIsAO2sErSl0cZDC1i8fZtRL2OEyg1PH0arspv7cDfHCrV6XrviTutDPAxKEPUaAqdMEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds.

2 Roy, Isabel, and Sam Benson Smith. “What Is the Oxford Comma—And Why Can’t the Grammar World Agree on Whether to Use It?” Reader’s Digest. September 24, 2021. https://www.rd.com/article/oxford-comma-proper-use/.

3 Proofed. “3 Differences Between American and British Punctuation” April 01, 2020. https://proofed.com/writing-tips/differences-american-british-punctuation/.

4 Write with Jean. “British vs American English” May 06, 2012. https://www.writewithjean.com/2012/05/06/british-vs-american-english/.