Oxford commas (1)

I was puzzled last week to see references on Twitter to the exotic-sounding “Oxford comma”, a new term to me. It turns out (thank you, Mark Allen and  Oxford Dictionaries) that the Oxford comma is another name for the “serial comma”:

an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.
It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:
These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.
The Oxford comma is also known as the ‘serial comma’.

Style guides differ on whether or not the Oxford comma should be used (as noted above, it’s optional and depends on house-style), and it’s more common in US than in UK English.

I don’t use the serial comma unless it’s needed to avoid ambiguity, as in the second example above.

I used to use it, until I started working with a team of translators whose house style was to omit it. A clear case of grammar fickleness.

The Wikipedia entry gives you more information on serial commas than you’d ever have thought possible. And “Oxford Comma” is also the title of a song by Vampire Weekend.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. I’m slightly surprised to see this presented as a matter of style and therefore choice, as to me the function of the commas at the beginning of the list is to separate words, whereas this does not apply between the last two items (except to avoid confusion, as you state), which are already separated by the ‘and’. It also seems to add a brief pause where one is not required, unnecessarily breaking the flow.

    1. The Oxford/serial comma seems to be partly an issue of UK vs US English. Even within the US, however, opinion differs. I haven’t looked into Australian or NZ English – would be interesting to know what their usage is.
      I take your point about pauses and flow – it’s so important to “listen to” the rhythm and flow of our writing. Maybe users of the Oxord comma feel that the additional pause is needed, to alert readers to the fact that the list/sentence is about to end.

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