Writing Tip of the Week: What is an Oxford Comma?

University_College_Oxford england picture


As we discussed in last week’s writing tip, writing has always been a major skill of the Renaissance Man.  Not only for personal journal keeping, but often times for publication and distribution.  Today’s tip aims to explain a very small but important part of writing: the Oxford Comma.  The picture above is of Oxford University, in case you were wondering.

serial oxford harvard comma

The Oxford Comma (as it’s popularly called) can also be called the serial comma or even the Harvard Comma.  The simplest explanation is that an Oxford Comma is the comma that is placed directly before the conjunction preceding the final item on a list of three or more items.  Here’s an example: “cat, dog, and panther.”

But there is a problem.  Some people, like the band Vampire Weekend, journalists following the AP style-guide, and most of Britain (excluding the Oxford University Press… hence the name)  do not adhere to the use of the Oxford Comma.  (note the use of one in the previous sentence).

The argument is often that the Oxford comma is redundant as the conjunction serves to sufficiently separate the two items in the list.  But this is not always the case.  Take for instance the following sentence:

“I would like to thank my roommates, Morgan Freeman, and God.”

Without the Oxford Comma you get:

“I would like to thank my roommates, Morgan Freeman and God.”

The implication of the second sentence is that your roommates are in fact Morgan Freeman and God.  While the previous sentence involving a cat, a dog, and a panther, would make sense with or without the Oxford Comma.  The second sentence means two entirely different things depending on whether or not you use an oxford comma.  Both are grammatically correct, but you can’t intend both.

It may seem trivial, but paying attention to your use of this commonly debated comma could save you from an awkwardly ambiguous statement.

What is your opinion of the Oxford Comma?


  • Kerri says:

    Wait a minute. I don’t quite understand the point you are making. To me your example would only make sense if in the first sentence the word “roommates” were singular. Then you would be thanking your roommate and also God who is not necessarily your roommate. Am I missing something?

    You’ve captured my attention. :)

    • admin says:

      that’s a good point. In the case that you only have one (hypothetical) roommate, it could change the example. But in this example by having roommates pluralized the oxford comma saves you from implying that morgan freeman and God are your roommates. “my roommates, morgan freeman and God” vs. “my roommates, morgan freeman, and God”. The second one you are thanking three distinct entities. 1) your roommates. There are at least two and they are left unnamed. 2) Morgan Freeman, who apparently was a major influence on you. And 3) God, because you are religious.

      Now both are grammatically correct. If you have two roommates and they are Morgan Freeman and God, then you wouldn’t use the oxford comma. But odds are this would never be the intention of the sentence.

      Does that make sense?

  • bmhonline says:

    To imply your roommates included Morgan Freeman and God, wouldn’t you write: “I would like to thank my roommates: Morgan Freeman, and God”. Thanking Morgan Freeman and God, could imply “Morgan Freeman and God” is the name of a band :D I remember being taught not to include a comma before and, although sometimes I go against that when certain sentences do seem to read better with that little pause that a comma requests.

    • First of all… that would be an awesome band name. lol But I think that would be accurate to write it either way, thanks to the ambiguous nature of the english language. If you were ending the sentence, it would definitely be more pleasing to use the colon, but if it was mid sentence (i.e. “I would like to thank my roommates, Morgan Freeman and God, without whom none of this would be possible…”) the omission of the oxford comma seems to work better. But I don’t claim to be a grammarian, it just seems that this could easily work with either use. Cheers!