The Oxford comma: what’s it all about?

Posted on 12 May 2015 by Lucy Gregory

Remember when you were taught at school never to put a comma before the final and in a list?

It’s probably one of the few grammar rules you still recall. And I’m sorry to say it’s wrong.

Meet the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma is a comma at the end of a list, before the final and or or:

We need to discuss the office summer party, next year’s marketing budget, Joe’s promotion, and the quality of biscuits in our meetings.

I like my eggs fried, scrambled, or poached.

It looks odd, I know. Why is it there? Why have you never seen it before? And why does it get over one million hits on Google?

When is it useful?

Most of the time, an Oxford comma makes no difference to a sentence. The sentences above, for example, would be fine without it.

But let’s say you wrote this:

In accepting this award for best employee of the year, I’d like to thank those who inspired me the most: my parents, Steve Jobs and the Queen.

Without the Oxford comma, there’s a chance someone could think you were the child of Steve Jobs and the Queen. Unlikely, but possible. Add the Oxford comma and there’s no doubt it’s a list of three people:

In accepting this award for best employee of the year, I’d like to thank those who inspired me the most: my parents, Steve Jobs, and the Queen.

Here’s a more sensible example:

We work with the following sectors: financial services, media and entertainment, oil and gas, and travel, transport and logistics.

‘Travel, transport and logistics’ is one list item; without the Oxford comma this wouldn’t be clear. (If you’re a punctuation keeno, you might be muttering that semicolons or a bullet list are a better solution. And you’d be right. But that’s another blog.)

Why have you not seen the Oxford comma before?

The Oxford comma is mainly used in the US. Some US style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, recommend it for every list.

On this side of the Pond, we’re less prescriptive. The majority of UK writing guides recommend you use it only when it makes your list clearer.

The difference of opinion between style guides is probably what causes the controversy. In my experience, most Brits are pretty chilled about the Oxford comma, but it can be a hot topic for Americans.

Random facts about the Oxford comma

1. It was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press (OUP), which is how the comma got its name. The OUP house style guide still insists on the Oxford comma for every list.

2. The Oxford comma is also known as a serial comma or Harvard comma – presumably by people who don’t like Oxford.

3. The Oxford comma shot to fame in 2008 when American rock band Vampire Weekend released an album with the lyrics: ‘Who gives a fuck about the Oxford comma?’ Much to everyone’s disappointment, the song wasn’t about grammar at all.

To read about other occasions when you can – and should – put a comma after and, read our blog on comma splicing.