Some people are sticklers for commas, or say punctuation, with emphasis on the comma. It is not yet clear under which group mania or OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder this habit belongs to, but it exists. They will probably be glad that someone has finally written a piece of article on the oxford comma.
However, this article is not for this class of people, though they might find it a worthy resource. It is for writers who seek to create content that will pass the severest scrutiny. Besides, if you have heard issues with the serial comma before then, here is a piece to help you out. Let’s cut the chase and get to the point.
What Is an Oxford comma?
It is the comma that is placed before the coordinating conjunction (and or) in a list of three or more items. It is also known as serial, series, or Harvard comma. The preceding sentence is an example of one of the common uses of the oxford comma.
Editors and writers do not seem to agree on whether it should be mandatory to use the oxford comma. However, its application also varies from region to region. For example, American style guides such as MLA, APA, and Chicago styles, insist on its use. On the other hand, the Canadian Press stylebook advises against it.
In British English, the Oxford comma is almost a non-issue. Except for the Oxford style that insists on it, other styles seem not to mind whether you use it or not.
The History of the Oxford Comma
The first person to use a comma to separate items in a list was the Aldo Manuzio, a 15th-century painter. The actual person who introduced the Oxford comma is, unfortunately, unclear.
Some sources claim that it was Horace Hart, the author of “Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers.” This is because the use of the Oxford comma was one of the rules in the 1905 stylebook. Peter Sutcliff, who named the serial comma “oxford comma” in 1978, attributed its introduction to F Howard Collins.
Why and When to Use the Oxford Comma
In spite of the exposition on the controversy surrounding the use of the oxford comma, or the ambiguity of its source, it is still invaluable. Capitalise My Title advises that you make it a part of your writing.
Answer these two questions when deciding whether to use the serial comma or not:
- Will the sentence be ambiguous without the comma?
- Will the meaning of the sentence change if you do not use the comma?
If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative, then use the comma. Let’s illustrate the point with a few examples.
- We visited Italy, Greece, and France.
- We visited Italy, Greece and France.
It is impossible to misunderstand these two sentences, with or without the comma. This is because it is general knowledge that Italy, Greece, and France are three different countries. In such a case, the comma is unnecessary; unless you are writing using styles that insist on it.
- Jane visited two cities in Europe, Cape Verde and Sydney.
- Jane visited two cities in Europe, Cape Verde, and Sydney.
The first sentence makes perfect sense if you know your world map well. However, not everyone has that luxury. To them, the meaning will be that the two cities Jane visited in Europe are Cape Verde and Sydney. Unfortunately, punctuation judges will agree with them even when geography and geographers disagree.
In the second sentence, Jane visited four cities, two in Europe and two more others, which are Cape Verde, in Africa, and Sydney in Australia. The comma removes any ambiguity that might result from the reader’s limited knowledge.
- Jim dedicated the song to his parents, Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.
- Jim dedicated the song to his parents, Trump, and Oprah Winfrey.
The first sentence implies that Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey are Jim’s parents. In the second sentence, Jim dedicated the song to three people, the first being the parents, then Donald Trump, and finally, Oprah Winfrey. It is for this reason that the Oxford comma is a lifesaver for journalists that specialise in written content.
- He met his long-term friend, a doctor and a business consultant.
- He met his long-term friend, a doctor, and a business consultant.
This is a classic example of when the omission of the oxford comma changes the meaning of the sentence without making it ambiguous or raising eyebrows. The 1sts sentence means that the long-term friend is both a doctor and a business consultant.
The second sentence means that the person met three different people, with one of them being a long-term friend. The other was a doctor, and the third one was a business consultant.
In this case, the use of the oxford comma makes the meaning as clear as possible. Often, the stress and pause in our speech are never transferred to the text. Therefore, to avoid the possible misunderstanding presented in this example, use an oxford comma, or rewrite the sentence.
The Significance of the Oxford Comma
One of the main benefits of using the serial comma is to avoid the possibility of misleading the reader, as seen in example 2. In such a case, for example, the reader might assume you mean Sydney is in Europe. It affects both the credibility of your knowledge and the authority of your work.
The other benefit of using the oxford comma is to avoid lawsuits or to turn your work into a source of fake news, as seen in example 3. Trump, Oprah, or Jim might choose to file a lawsuit of defamation, depending on how they consider each other.
It is the tiny details that bring out the difference between a novice and a pro writer. One of them is capitalising your title correctly. The other is using the serial comma properly. They help you to keep your text easy to skim and non-ambiguous.