Is it unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one?

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 5 july 2011

Powered by
This article titled “Oxford commas? Let common sense prevail” was written by David Marsh, for on Monday 4th July 2011 09.15 UTC

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? asked Vampire Weekend. Quite a few people, it turns out, including the entire population of the United States (or the significant proportion thereof that uses Twitter).

The horrified reaction to last week’s much retweeted, if inaccurate, claim that “Oxford University is abandoning the Oxford comma” was led by Americans alarmed at this new threat to the special relationship. This is unsurprising, as traditional US language guides, from the worthy but dull Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to the dull but worthy Chicago Manual of Style, regard the Oxford (or serial) comma – the last in a list, immediately before the word “and” – as mandatory.

Indeed it is No 2, no less, in Strunk & White’s “elementary rules” of usage: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” To true believers in this maxim, a flag that you or I might regard as red, white and blue is in fact red, white, and blue. (The rule has the potential to introduce enough unnecessary pauses to your prose to make a shopping list read like something by Pinter.)

The furore led many people to assume that Oxford University Press, champion of the eponymous comma, had changed sides – a typical reaction was “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals” – but, as ends of the world go, the truth was distinctly un-apocalyptic. It turned out that a writing guide produced some time ago by the university’s public affairs directorate for press releases and internal communication had advised: “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.”

It added, however, that such a comma might help clarify a sentence or resolve ambiguity, especially where an item in the list was already joined by ‘and’. This sensible advice is similar to the Guardian style guide approach: “Straightforward lists (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need a final comma, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea).

The guide goes on to say – and I honestly can’t remember if I made up this joke, or stole if from elsewhere – “Sometimes it is essential: compare ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ with ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.”

In a characteristically thoughtful piece on his Sentence first blog, Stan Carey quotes the example “encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”, pointing out that an Oxford comma after “demigod” would only introduce another ambiguity (is Mandela a demigod, a dildo collector, a demigod and a dildo collector, or none of the above?).

In short, it’s as unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one. The best rule is common sense. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.


IKEA Is Letting Kids Design Its New Line Of Toys

Travel Yesterday

30-Year-Old Photographs Used As Travel Guides

A new photo series revolves around tracing the origins of images from the past

Technology Yesterday

Album Turns Into Something New Each Time It’s Streamed

Bill Baird's new album explores the relationship between time and music through a website crafted by design team, One Pixel Wide


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Health Yesterday

VR App Prescribed For Pain Relief

A pharmacy chain in Sweden is stepping away from tradition to develop a happy place for the pain-afflicted

Retail Yesterday

Banks Are Coming Together To Create A New Payment Network That Rivals Venmo

A number of financial institutions are collaborating to make a new person-to-person monetary system called Zelle for their customers

Related Expert

Amit Zoran

Integration of Classical & Computational Systems

Media & Publishing Yesterday

Pocket Camera Aims To Facilitate The Struggles Of Live Streams

The Mevo helps resolve the complexities of streaming video with an intuitive setup and smart editing controls

Food Yesterday

Startup Believes Traceability Will Help Disrupt The Multivitamin Industry

Ritual is a daily supplement for women that traces every ingredient back to its source

Food Yesterday

Photo Series Brutally Murders Some Of Your Favorite Fast Food

The portraits by artist duo Ilka & Franz do away with mealtime regulars in a way that is both beautiful and humorous


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed Yesterday

General Electric: Lighting’s Impact On Sleep Is More Than The Off Switch

Jeff Patton, General Manager of Connected Home Products at GE Lighting, uncovers how lighting technologies can affect our sleep cycles

PSFK Labs october 25, 2016

The Keys For Exceptional Performance On And Off The Field

PSFK Labs' new report highlights five important insights for businesses to perform better than the competition

Mobile Yesterday

Coffeemaker Teaches You How To Make The Perfect Cup

The device comes with an accompanying app that guides novices and experts alike through the brewing process

Brand Development Yesterday

The Story Behind How LYNK & CO Created A Car Brand From Scratch

Head of Design Andreas Nilsson describes which values were most influential in determining the identity and design direction of the new auto company

Travel Yesterday

Architect’s Design Presents A Radically New Approach For New York’s Penn Station

The firm of Vishaan Chakrabarti has envisioned a bright community and travel hub in the heart of the city

Fitness & Sport Yesterday

Editorial Roundtable: Building An All-Encompassing Performance Suite

WHOOP, ShotTracker, Rithmio, PlaySight, STYR Labs, EverybodyFights and Lift / Next Level Floats on the partnership opportunities available in health and fitness

Gaming & Play Yesterday

Fantasy Game Responds To Each Player’s Emotions

The card battling venture measures responses through a Bluetooth clip to adjust the experience accordingly

Luxury Yesterday

Carry A Map Of NYC On A Handbag

The bag from Bottega Veneta has been designed exclusively for Bergdorf Goodman to celebrate New York City

Technology Yesterday

Roaming Robots Crawl Around Your Body To Do Small Jobs As You Go About Your Day

A new concept wearable developed by researchers at MIT and Stanford are fully functional bots that live on your clothing

Retail Yesterday

Runners Are Delivering Groceries To Parisians

French supermarket Carrefour partnered with a running group for fast and memorable deliveries

No search results found.