July 21, 2011Why I still use the Oxford comma

Don’t worry about the dictionary definition. The Oxford Comma is simple. It separates out separate things. Without the comma, things are combined.

Here’s a simple, concise, and definitive argument courtesy of —

As you can see, the Oxford comma isn’t an afterthought. It’s absolutely essential to get your message across with clarity.

Here’s another example, this time from


The Oxford comma is kind of like the <li> tag (if you’re in an HTML frame of mind). Each comma is another <ul> or <ol> entry that separates each individual item. In other words, the Oxford comma is the old fashioned way of writing bullet points.

Without the comma, sentences are simply separated into two clauses, with confusing (and sometimes hilarious) results.

In short — if you want to give your readers clarity, give them the Oxford comma.




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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 21st, 2011 at 8:05 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. August says:

    Ah jeez, I hate when people don’t use the Oxford comma.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Only the second example makes a difference. Only an idiot would interpret the former to mean orange juice on toast. With or without comma.

  3. Gerold says:

    Excellent post! Now I understand the Oxford comma.

  4. Paul Burton says:

    Superb visual explanation.

  5. al says:

    Hi Jonathan, I have to disagree. Clarity is essential, especially for non-native speakers. The fact is without the comma, the words don’t mean the same thing.

    I’m reminded of the joke about the computer programmer whose wife tells him “Get a pint of milk from the shop and if they have eggs, get six.”

    The programmer returns with six pints of milk. His wife asks him why.

    “They had eggs in the shop, so I got six,” he replies.

    It helps to think of the Oxford comma as part of a programming language. WIthout it, you can interpret the meaning of what someone is saying with a high degree of success — but it isn’t definite until it has the comma.

  6. Michael Cunningham says:

    Nice example. I agree with al. It is similar to the punctuational problem of the space between George and and and and and dragon.

  7. Ben says:

    I disagree. In a list of 3, the Oxford is really not necessary for clarity. Grammatically, we write “I like basketball and baseball” not “I like basketball, baseball.” Thus, the first comma in “I had eggs, toast and orange juice” is separating item one from two, with “and” separating two from three. Reading it as two items is to treat the first comma incorrectly. This, however, seems to be an opinion few of my coworkers (I teach English as a second language) seem to share.

  8. If you think that using the Oxford comma always makes things clearer, then unfortunately you are wrong.

    The blanket use of the Oxford comma is actually as inappropriate as its blanket omission. Here’s why.

    “I love my parents, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe” – here you need the Oxford comma, as otherwise it erroneously suggests that my parents are Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

    “I love my father, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe” – here the Oxford comma is not appropriate, as it erroneously suggests that Elvis is my father.

    The important thing is to use it when it’s needed, omit it when it would be confusing, and take a consistent approach otherwise (i.e. either always use it or always omit it) when its optional.

  9. Chris Van says:

    Good writing = clear writing. Thence, as explained in the illustration, use the comma where it will aid clarity and omit it when it won’t. Easy peasy.

  10. Fiona Brown says:

    Oliver’s second example doesn’t read inappropriately. It clearly states that he loves his father (person 1), Elvis (person 2) and Ms Monroe (person 3).

    Using commas has been contentious for a long time, I remember a school teacher explaining where to use commas and coming to a dead stop when she realised that some of her examples made little sense. We were NOT taught the Oxford comma, but her sentences would have been far more sensible with it!

    “at the party we danced, swam and ate cake” – would need a clause: “the swimming pool was a mess’! Or a majot reordering, But if you want to be clear that we danced first, then swam, and then ate cake, the Oxford comma dorts that out very well.

    The other thing to remember, is that commas are like breathing spaces, and make sentence sense easier to HEAR. Whenever I am unsure, I read the sentence out loud. Things can get quite funny that way.

  11. Fiona Brown says:

    Eeek, I have mistyped major and sorts! This is what comes from rushing, watching Star Trek while typing, and checking messages; all at the same time.

  12. monica says:

    I thought I must be the only person in the world to continue the use of the comma. I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog. Sadly, I had begun to wonder whether it even mattered anymore.

  13. Guy Hanchet says:

    I didn’t know it was called the Oxford comma. In Strunk and White “The Elements of Style” it is rule 2 on page 2 of chapter 1. The authors mention that it is often referred to as the “serial” comma. In any event, I fear that those of us who appreciate the clarity that a consistent rule brings are fighting a losing battle as most style guides these days recommend leaving it out unless it might otherwise cause confusion.

    I have not previously seen the amusing confusion noted above by Elvis’ son, Lawrence, Or perhaps Lawrence is Elvis’ friend. If the reader knew that Lawrence always uses the Oxford comma, it would be clear that Lawrence is Elvis’ friend, because otherwise he would have chosen to write something else such as “I love Marilyn Munroe and my father, Elvis”.

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