What's the Oxford Comma and why should you care?


This essay first appeared in my newsletter, The Write Stuff. If you’d like a monthly shot of writing and editing advice, sign up here.

How important can the Oxford Comma be?

For a group of US delivery drivers who won a lawsuit on the lack of a comma, it was worth $5 million. 

The drivers successfully argued the overtime laws were too ambiguous because, as The Guardian explains, they didn’t distinguish ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution’ as separate activities. 

The grammar nerd in me loved reading about this case because I’m a big believer in the Oxford Comma, a piece of punctuation which seems to create quite the divide amongst the writing community. 

The Oxford Comma, also called the serial comma, is placed before the final ‘and’ in a list to avoid confusion. 

Scattered pages of printed text.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

For example there’s a big difference between the meaning of these two sentences:

At the restaurant we ate garlic bread, roast beef, vegetables and chocolate pudding.

At the restaurant we ate garlic bread, roast beef, vegetables, and chocolate pudding. 

Unless you’ve eaten a rather bizarre roast dinner, adding the Oxford Comma makes it clear that the pudding is a separate element of what you ate. 

Get monthly writing advice, plus a blog post editing checklist

* indicates required
Email Format

As The Guardian style guide states, it can be essential. 

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling
I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling”

In the second sentence readers may be left thinking the writer’s parents are Martin Amis and JK Rowling. 

However, not every publication (the newspaper I worked for among them) likes an Oxford Comma and in professional writing the style guide is everything. 

Some style guides, including The Guardian, say the Oxford Comma should only be used to avoid confusion, but I prefer to use it consistently. 

Just writing for your blog? Then it’s totally up to you! Just make sure your sentences don’t leave any potential misunderstandings. 

Where do you stand on the Oxford Comma? Let me know in the comments.

Deciding on your use of the Oxford Comma is a key part of creating your blog's style guide. Read this post to find out why style is important and get a template to make your own guide.

How important is the Oxford Comma? This devisive punctuation mark can make the world of difference. In this post find out how to use it correctly. #writingtips #writingcommunity #writing