Are you new to the Great Comma Debate? Are you a firm believer in the usage of the Oxford comma or do you think it’s a waste of space and ink? The Great Comma Debate has been raging in academia for over a hundred years, and it still has yet to be settled. Hopefully, our brief explanation and examples below will provide you with a good sense of when to use the Oxford comma in your lists–and when not to.
What is an Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the final comma that comes before “and” (or “or”) at the end of a list. For example:
The study shows that the patients enjoyed reading, knitting, and cooking.
The use of the Oxford comma is completely stylistic. The Associated Press style (AP Style), used by American journalists, does not require the use of the Oxford comma, so the above example sentence would be written as follows:
The study shows that the patients enjoyed reading, knitting and cooking.
Generally, whether to include the Oxford comma or not is up to the writer. However, not including the Oxford comma can sometimes lead to misunderstandings caused by ambiguity. For example:
This research is dedicated to my professors, Angela and Samuel.
In this example, the research could be dedicated to two professors: one named Angela and one named Samuel; or it could be dedicated to multiple professors as well as to two people named Angela and Samuel. Omitting the Oxford comma will likely lead readers to believe that whatever items come after the comma (here, “Angela and Samuel”) is defining the item(s) presented before the comma (here, “professors”). If the research is dedicated to the writer’s professors in addition to two people named Angela and Samuel, using an Oxford comma tells the reader that these are three separate people or groups of people to whom the writer wants to dedicate their research.
This research is dedicated to my professors, Angela, and Samuel.
As demonstrated in the above example, one comma makes a crucial difference in meaning. Therefore, using the Oxford comma can eliminate ambiguity by showing the separation between list items.
Again, the choice is yours, but make sure that whatever convention you decide on, you are consistent throughout your writing. Some journals and publications have specific guidelines for how commas should be applied, so reading a lot of articles from your target journal or publication can be a good way to see how commas and other formatting and punctuation marks should be applied.
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