The Oxford comma might be grammar’s most contentious debate. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, or high-school English teacher, you likely have an opinion—and a strong one—about this little mark.
There’s rationale in support of both sides. But stylebooks—and clients—often still don’t agree. So, what’s the right answer?
Let’s dive in and settle this debate once and for all. I’ll take a look at the Oxford objectors and the Oxford supporters, then weigh in on best practices for all you copywriters, readers, and grammar nerds out there struggling to decide.
First, let’s talk about the Oxford objectors.
Who they are
The AP Stylebook, American newspapers, and my high-school English teacher.
What they believe
Oxford objectors say that the final comma before the conjunction at the end of a list is unnecessary and adds clutter. Therefore, they exclude it.
Example: I love my parents, Beyoncé and Miss Piggy.
The potential problem with the above sentence is that it could be interpreted as stating that I love my parents, and my parents are Beyoncé and Miss Piggy (unfortunately for me, they are not).
But, Oxford objectors argue that any ambiguity can be avoided by changing the order of a list, instead of adding punctuation.
Example: I love Beyoncé, Miss Piggy and my parents.
They also argue that the Oxford comma can actually add ambiguity in some cases, as in the sentence:
I love my daughter, Miss Piggy, and coffee.
In one reading, I have a variety of interests. In another, I am Miss Piggy’s parent. Both are possible. One is significantly cooler.
Okay, now it’s the supporter’s turn.
Who they are
The Oxford University Press style guidelines (hence its name), the Chicago Style Manual, the US Government Printing Office, and my college English professor.
What they believe
Supporters say that Oxford comma usage is a helpful tool that provides clarity in list phrases that would be otherwise ambiguous. Why rearrange a list when you can just throw a comma in there and make everything clearer? They see the Oxford comma usage as a small mark to make in the name of clearer syntax.
This becomes especially true in long lists that have the word and in the conjunction that sits before the last item on the list.
Example: I have a new muffin recipe: blueberries, peanut butter and chocolate chips and coconut.
Without the serial comma, it’s unsure whether the last part of the recipe is a combination of peanut butter and chocolate chips or chocolate chips and coconut. What is my recipe for muffins? I guess we’ll never know.
So, what’s the right answer?
Well, technically there isn’t one. Both sides of the comma debate have compelling arguments, and most grammarians view Oxford comma usage as optional. So, when you have to make the call, here are some best practices to remember:
- Stick to the style guide. Priority number one is staying true to brand. Does your agency, client, or company adhere to one style guide over another? Refer to your established standards to guide your comma decision.
- Stay consistent. Whether you decide to comma or not to comma, make sure you do so throughout the entire piece, deck, or campaign. Because if there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that consistency is key.
The debate will continue, but hopefully now you have a better grasp on when—and how—to use the Oxford comma.