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The Oxford Comma: To Use or Not to Use

when to use an oxford comma writing editing authors publishers

We are a nation divided.

Is it politics? The environment? The pandemic?


It’s a seemingly innocuous little thing known as the Oxford comma. For such a tiny little character it kicks up quite a fuss.

Some claim it’s superfluous. Others insist it’s necessary.

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is that last comma found in lists of three or more items.


The inconsistent use of the oxford comma can be the last straw for any strained employer-employee and/or writer-editor relationship.

The Associated Press Stylebook, and print journalism in general, has scolded the use of the Oxford comma since before its existence to afford extra physical newspaper column space.

On the other hand, the academic and novel-focused Chicago Manual of Style loves the Oxford comma. Books can be as long as you want, for better or worse.

Even though AP style has a history of advising against this polarizing punctuation mark, the Associated Press has caught up with the times and has changed its stance ever so slightly, thanks to peer pressure and the natural evolution of language and society.

Some of AP Stylebook’s tweets have confirmed that the stylebook doesn’t “ban” Oxford commas per se but recommends that it be used sparingly.

Whatever that means.

One particular tweet in this controversial thread explains the AP’s stance on the Oxford comma’s use when it comes to improving the clarity and fluidity of a list: “For example: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. #APStyleChat (4/4)”.

“And” twice in a row is already both an eye and ear sore, so hopefully the addition of the Oxford comma can ease the pain just a tad. Then again, how much does the extra comma really do?

Well, in a similar case just a few years ago, one Oxford comma — or the lack thereof — caused a huge legal stink with millions of dollars on the line.

If that isn’t crazy enough, think about the damaging misunderstanding you could cause when you express that you love your brothers, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

Your brothers are Elton John and Stevie Wonder??? Can I get an autograph?

One little Oxford comma could really make or break the meaning of that sentence.

If you’re looking for a compromise among your peers in the editing industry, the following may help:

  • respect individual organizations’ stylebooks;

  • leave a piece of writing as clean as you can by losing the Oxford comma when you don’t need it; and

  • keep it when it provides consistency and clarity in your writing.

It’s basic logic and common courtesy, which is more important than people and companies fighting due to different, and - in the grand scheme of things - rather insignificant stylistic differences.

When it comes down to it there are three types of people: those who love the Oxford comma, those who hate the Oxford comma, and those who don’t pay attention enough to care.

Shame on this last group.

Don’t lose yourself to indifference; let us know which group are you in, and why?

Let us know in the comments below!


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