What's the deal with the Oxford comma?

Notes from the classroom.

What's the deal with the Oxford comma?

As well as spending a lot of my day interviewing people and writing about the world, one of the things I really enjoy doing is working one-on-one to coach people with their writing and social media projects.

One of the common topics that comes up during these sessions is punctuation - specifically, the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma refers to the use of a final comma when you are writing a list of things. For example: “Please buy an apple, two bananas, and three pears.”

The Oxford comma is the comma used after the word bananas.

This sentence would also be punctuated correctly if the Oxford comma was omitted. For example: “Please buy an apple, two bananas and three pears.”

Whether or not you should use an Oxford comma generally depends on the requirements of the style guide that you have to adhere to.

A lot of news organisations and publications follow the AP Stylebook. This style of writing doesn’t use the Oxford comma. But if you’re just writing for yourself, and you don’t have an editor or sub-editor setting and policing the style rules, then it’s a stylistic choice that you get to make.

The use of an Oxford comma can generally help to ensure that the meaning of your sentence is clear.

For example, if you’re writing in the AP Style, you could write a sentence such as:

“I love my sisters, Michelle Obama and Nicole Kidman.”

This sentence could be describing a list of things that you love, or it could indicate that Michelle Obama and Nicole Kidman are your sisters.

Use of an Oxford comma removes any confusion:

“I love my sisters, Michelle Obama, and Nicole Kidman.”

You can achieve the same clarity in the AP Style by rephrasing the sentence. For example:

“I love Michelle Obama, Nicole Kidman and my sisters.”

Personally, I always default to the Oxford comma. The AP Style requires a bit more discipline and often needs an editing eye - which is never a bad thing - but I prefer the completeness that the Oxford comma seems to provide. It better reflects the way that I think and read.

If you’ve got a writing project that you’d like some assistance with, or if you’d like some help with your social media, or if you’d just like to brainstorm some ideas sometime, I’d be happy to help.

Get in touch, join me for one of my London classes, or stay tuned for more hints and tips.

Follow Gareth Johnson on Twitter


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