The Oxford comma

You know: the comma before “and” in a list of three or more items.

Have some paradigms:

The two main rationales for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor. Here are some quotes that have served as shots exchanged in the Oxford comma wars.

Pro: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

This example from the Chicago Manual of Style shows how the comma is necessary for clarity. Without it, she is taking a picture of two people, her mother and father, who are the president and vice president. With it, she is taking a picture of four people.

Quite. The “Oxford” comma is necessary there; it simply does one of the jobs a comma is supposed to do.

Con: “Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.”

This example from the 1934 style book of the New York Herald Tribune shows how a comma before “and” can result in a lack of clarity. With the comma, it reads as if Mr. Smith was the donor of the cup, which he was not.

Ok well I tell you what, that’s not a good sentence, with or without the comma. Just re-do the sentence. That’s the other way to fix these little problems – just re-do the damn sentence.

The commodore and the fleet captain were at the ceremony, along with the donor of the cup (Susan Milligram) and Steve Jones and Bob Smith.

Still not elegant, but at least you can figure it out without getting a crick in your neck.


  1. Sili says

    And the context of the first sentence (as well the infamous “I think my parents, Ayn Rand(,) and God”) makes the intended meaning perfectly clear. Claiming to not understand it correctly without the comma is perverse. Like people who claim that negative concord must be parsed as if a series of negations.

  2. says

    I would have thought that nothing should commit one to either always use the Oxford comma or always avoid it. Presumably, one should choose whether to use it or not on a case-by-case basis.

  3. says

    Sili, no it isn’t. Context doesn’t always make the meaning clear, and what possible reason is there to omit the comma if it does make the meaning clear?

    Even when the meaning is clear, it’s very often just not what I mean. I want to list three separate distinct things, and that requires separation. It’s what commas are for. The idea that there’s some binding “rule” that you can’t use a comma before the “and” seems to me just nonsense. You’re permitted to omit the comma if you want to; that doesn’t mean you have to.

  4. Martin Cohen says

    I read it out loud or mentally, and if there is a pause there, I put in a comma.

    Though, in the sentence above, there might be a comma after “and”.

    Also, I do not put punctuation inside closing quotes unless the punctuation is part of the item being quoted. That is whay the preceding sentence does not end “”and.””.

    Also also, to me, it seems that the nested quotes at the end of the preceding sentence are logically necessary.

  5. says

    Whether to put the punctuation inside or outside is strictly country-dependent. It’s outside in the UK and inside in the US. I had to keep that rule constantly in mind in my job as deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine – which followed UK rules but had lots of US contributors. I did lots of fiddly punctuation-moving. Very boring. I prefer the UK rule on the whole – I tend to feel stupid putting the punctuation inside when it doesn’t make sense. But I obey the US rule because I don’t want people pointing and jeering.

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    For the second example, I would use one of two alternatives. The simplest option is to change the order of the list.

    “Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Smith, who was the donor of the cup.”

    I’m not as confident about the proper use of punctuation in the next example. But there are times when the order cannot be changed, such as in a picture caption.

    “Those at the ceremony were the commodore; the fleet captain; Mr. Smith, the donor of the cup; and Mr. Jones.”

    By the way, I always use a comma before the “and” in a list of three or more. Having to re-read a sentence once or twice to try to figure out what a writer meant pulls me out of the flow of reading, so I try not to do this to others.

  7. chrislawson says

    I’m a big fan of the Oxford comma myself because I find it has a kind of functional beauty to it. But what I don’t understand is the furious battle over which way is “correct.” Both ways are perfectly acceptable forms of syntax and I bet most people reading a novel won’t even notice…except for the people who think of themselves as the grammar police. And most of the examples I see explaining why one system is superior to the other rely on poorly-constructed sentences where any confusion could be removed by a minor edit to create a sentence that is better with either an Oxford comma or without it.

  8. david says

    The Washington Times, Dec 11, 2013: “Britain’s Sky News posted this bulletin about the Nelson Mandela memorial service at 6:36 p.m. London time Tuesday: “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set.”

    Either US/Cuban relationships are going to get a LOT friendlier, or that sentence is missing an important comma.

  9. latverian diplomat says

    The problem with hanging one’s case on particular examples, is that “Real writers write around the problem” as the saying goes.

    I would argue that She took a photograph of the president, the vice president and her parents is a better solution than the Oxford comma in the first case.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    If you are actually quoting what someone actually said, what they said (punctuation, and, speling and all go inside the quotation marks) period.
    So there.

  11. chigau (違う) says

    Is English to only language with this comma problem?
    I have a limited ability in French, where it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
    And Japanese doesn’t really use commas except as a replacement for や and と, both of which mean ‘and’.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    Is that rule only for short quotes?
    If you are quoting a longer passage, something with more than one sentence, don’t you include everything within the quote marks?

  13. says

    I don’t know if it’s only an English language problem. I wasn’t aware of it until I started writing for a lot of UK sites/sources, and also the editing job I mentioned.

    In general it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference and I doubt many people notice.

  14. says

    Language evolves. Spelling evolves. I guess punctuation does too. Some people want hard, permanent rules or else.. it’s anarchy!

    Guess I’m saying I see this as a fight between conservatives and not-conservatives.
    But that’s how I see everything these days I suppose.

  15. says

    Which is better?

    1) green and blue
    2) green, and blue

    If you say #1 is right above, then why would you write #2 below?

    1) red, green and blue
    2) red, green, and blue

    The “and” (sans comma) is a sign that a list of multiple items is ending. The comma means that the list is continuing. I would use #1 both times above for the same reason as #1 here:

    1) “very, very good”
    2) “very, very, good”

  16. says

    Addendum: The same discussion could be started about the use of “and” in stating numbers. It’s not universal, but most people I know who have done statistics and/or computer science use “and” to signify a decimal.

    105 = one hundred five

    100.5 = one hundred and five

    Some people insist on using and in both cases, even when they know it causes confusion.

    And then there’s American insistence of using the MM/DD/YYYY date format…. ^_^

  17. says

    If we’re talking logic, to me both options, with and without Oxford comma, are stupid.
    The issue is that the comma is doing double-duty: separating items in a list and delimiting a relative clause. The Oxford comma is just a dirty hack.

    The actual logical solution would be introducing a different interpuntuation to take over one of the jobs for the comma.

  18. Al Dente says

    That’s the other way to fix these little problems – just re-do the damn sentence.

    That’s cheating!!1! Which is why I tend to do it.

  19. says

    Left0ver1under –
    a) I would simply use ‘very very good’ – no commas at all because it is a single phrase.
    b) I have never heard of anyone using ‘and’ to signify a decimal point. To do so seems a recipe for confusion as you demonstrate.

    Generally I would argue that clarity trumps arbitrary rules.

  20. says

    Sili (@1):

    And the context of the first sentence (as well the infamous “I think my parents, Ayn Rand(,) and God”) makes the intended meaning perfectly clear.

    Of course the intended meaning is clear — and the unintended meaning ludicrous — in those examples: That’s what makes them useful as examples. But it’s also obvious that omitting the comma creates a structural ambiguity… and it can be (and in my real-world experience, often is) much more difficult to resolve that ambiguity from other clues in utterances not carefully constructed as instructive examples. In the technical work I edit, listings are often complex and full of arcane technical terminology. We strictly enforce the Oxford comma because we simply can’t afford to tolerate any unnecessary ambiguity.

    And in any case, even if the reader can easily conclude that “well, they can’t possibly mean that; that would be ludicrous,” forcing readers to do that sort of non-value-added analytical work to get through the sentence is antithetical to the goal of clear, efficient expression.

    In structural terms, the commas (or semicolons, in a list of expressions that have internal commas) serve to delimit the list and the conjunction (which might just as well be or as and, BTW) serves as a marker indicating the final item of the list (which is important because it might not be the end of the sentence). I can’t see any compelling argument for omitting either, ever. Perhaps in olden times of hand-set type, the labor of setting all those “extra” commas was meaningful, but these days commas are made of electrons, and electrons are cheap!

  21. says

    left0ver1under (@19):

    Choosing No. 1 in your first set and No. 2 in your second isn’t inconsistent or hypocritical; instead, it simply recognizes that a pair (i.e., a list where n=2) is a special case of lists generally.

    (Stringing together modifiers is a whole ‘nother kettle of horses of another color; throwing that in just muddies the water.)

    DrMcCoy (@21):

    If we’re talking logic, to me both options, with and without Oxford comma, are stupid.
    The issue is that the comma is doing double-duty: separating items in a list and delimiting a relative clause. The Oxford comma is just a dirty hack.

    Relative clause? What part of “I love sushi, hot dogs, and hamburgers” is a relative clause, with or without the Oxford comma?

  22. says

    That’s the list itemization I was talking about, the other job the comma has. The relative clause would be “He loved Susan, his wife, and their children”, with Susan being the name of his wife.

  23. says

    Well I know why. It’s because you should be able to use ALL punctuation on a case-by-case basis, so treating one particular kind of comma as somehow Sinful is intrusive and authoritarian. That’s why.

  24. says

    But that’s an entirely different grammatical structure; its resemblance to a comma-delimited list is literally superficial, an artifact of the fact that commas generally have multiple uses (not just those two, BTW). I thought you meant to be asserting that a single comma in a single utterance might have the ambiguous dual purpose you described.

    I doubt it’s possible to reform English — or any other natural language — to completely avoid this sort of thing. Certainly having unique marks for every possible punctuation function would be wildly complex and, I’m guessing, aesthetically horrific.

  25. says

    Bill, #31:
    Yes, I wasn’t entirely seriously. It was more of a continuation of the thought that one would be more logical than the other, which I have often seen claimed (though apparently not directly here). Possible that this wasn’t that obvious outside of my head…

    In the realm of constructed languages, there’s, for example, Lojban, which strives to be logical and ambiguity-free. Of course, what happens if that language was spoken at a day-to-day basis by a large group of people over a longer time is anybody’s guess.

  26. R Johnston says

    Always use the Oxford comma. Always.

    Even in the given example there is no ambiguity assuming the writer knows how to write–and if you can’t assume that then eliminating ambiguity is a lost cause anyway. If you are using commas to separate elements of a list then you don’t use them for any other purpose within that list that could be mistaken for separating elements. You can reorder your lists; you can use semi-colons to separate terms, thereby allowing the use of commas within terms; or you can use some punctuation other than commas (e.g. parentheses) to set aside clarifying and descriptive terms within a list element.

    The thing is that if you don’t always use the Oxford comma then the main benefits of using it are lost. In particular, consistent use of the Oxford comma allows lists to be parsed as they’re read. Without consistent use of the Oxford comma you always have to read past any conjunction and then work backwards before you can determine whether the conjunction is part of a compound element or whether it introduces the last element of the list, and even that won’t always be enough. Just try listing your ten favorite sandwiches without knowing that an Oxford comma is coming if you want to go completely insane. Lists are simply easier and less time consuming to read if you always use the Oxford comma and remember that punctuation other than commas and periods exists.

  27. stever says

    Why are we arguing over the Oxford comma when most of the internet jams an apostorphe into the posessive form of “it” and thinks “their”. “there” and “they’re” are interchangeable?

  28. Claire Ramsey says

    In my book the most elegant solution is to rewrite the sentence. I like how the Oxford comma makes text look, but lists within sentences can extend clauses so much that the reader can’t remember what the sentence is about. My advice, when I am obligated to offer it, is to first consider a different kind of sentence. Also, rewriting the sentence can be approximately 94.89 times more fun than inserting or removing a comma.

  29. Kevin Kehres says

    The first example doesn’t indicate that four people were in a single photograph, with or without the use of the Oxford. It indicates that she photographed four people and provides no other information about when or whether they were all together at the time. I would recast it as “she took a photo of her parents with the President and Vice President.”

    The Oxford is reserved for use with more than 2 in a series. A simple comma-less conjunction “and, but, nor” is fine when only two are in the series, as demonstrated above. The Oxford is for series of 3 or more.

    @19: The Oxford is used to separate 3 or more nouns. Your last example has two adjectives modifying a noun and the proper form is always “very, very good”. That comma isn’t an Oxford, but a regular old comma. A pedestrian comma of ordinary provenance. Adding another does not add erudition.

    Here endeth the grammar lesson.

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