The Oxford comma, sometimes called the serial comma, refers to the comma placed directly before a conjunction (and, or, nor) in a list.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- The peacock feathers might be red, gold, blue, green, or brown.
- I’ve thought about a career as an urban explorer, a zookeeper, and a professional surfer.
In the first example, the Oxford comma is placed between the word green and the conjunction or. In the next sentence, the Oxford comma appears between the word zookeeper and the conjunction and.
Most American style guides (e.g., Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, MLA Style Manual) require the use of the Oxford comma, claiming it clarifies written language. You’re likely to encounter the Oxford comma when you read textbooks and novels.
On the other side of the debate, we have the AP Stylebook.
The AP Stylebook discourages the use of the Oxford comma, claiming it is redundant since a conjunction is already in place. Most journalists use the AP Stylebook so Oxford commas are rarely seen in newspapers.
Going back to our examples, the same sentences would probably be punctuated differently in a newspaper:
- The peacock feathers might be red, gold, blue, green or brown.
- I’ve thought about a career as an urban explorer, a zookeeper and a professional surfer.
The presence of an Oxford comma can change the way a sentence is read. Check out these examples:
- I’d like to introduce you to my neighbors, Sam, and Shirley.
- I’d like to introduce you to my neighbors, Sam and Shirley.
- Michael accepted the award, saying he owed it all to his parents, God, and Pamela.
- Michael accepted the award, saying he owed it all to his parents, God and Pamela.
Believe it or not, the Oxford comma can be a controversial topic amongst writers and editors! You can even buy “Long Live the Oxford Comma” or “Death to the Oxford Comma” t-shirts online.
Important note: Actually wearing such a shirt greatly increases the risk of being ostracized by your family, friends, and strangers.