To Oxford comma or not to Oxford comma? Learn what’s best, with Liz Bury.

Oxford commas (also known as Harvard or serial commas) often prompt surprisingly severe reactions one way or the other, which is quite an achievement for a lowly punctuation mark! Equally beloved and reviled, it’s the comma that is – or isn’t – placed before the final item in a list.

Ambiguity issues

Cheerleaders for the Oxford comma like the separation it creates between the last two items on a list, saying it’s consistent and unambiguous. However, others disagree, saying it’s unnecessary in a simple list and it sometimes creates ambiguity, like this:

After his car broke down, he asked his father, a mechanic, and a passing motorist for help.
After his car broke down, he asked his father, a mechanic and a passing motorist for help.

Did he ask three people for help, or just two: his father (who is a mechanic) and the passing motorist? Omitting the final comma makes it clear it was three. The sentence construction in the second example also makes it doubtful the passing motorist was either his father or a mechanic – it would surely have been written differently if he was!

Oxford comma: should we, or shouldn’t we?

If you’re writing for an organisation, check its house style and stick to those guidelines – and for your own writing, choose what works best for you. In both cases though, consistency is key. 

However, to eliminate ambiguity once and for all, the best solution is not to rely on punctuation but to fix the writing instead.

Author

  • Liz Bury

    Liz is Group Editorial Manager at NetSupport by day and, by night, a musician and violin tutor for adult learners. A self-confessed word nerd, she is interested in psychology and what makes people tick, as well as being a champion of the contribution that music and the arts make to everyone’s wellbeing.
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