The Case for the Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford comma? Who cares about it?

Writers, for one.

The Oxford comma, also called the “serial comma” or “Harvard comma,” is the final comma in a series of words or phrases. It sometimes appears after the second to last item—as in “We had sandwiches, chips, and soda for lunch.” But often it’s omitted—as in “We had sandwiches, chips and soda for lunch.”

According to grammarians, the Oxford comma is entirely optional. It’s not surprising that the comma has both its advocates and detractors. And then there’s the vast majority of English readers who could care less.

Where would you place commas in these sentences?

• Our flag is red, white (?) and blue.

• A dog, a cat (?) and a boy were playing.

• The dog chased the cat, the cat scratched the dog (?) and the child ran after them.

• The party was wild because James wore a lamp shade for a hat, Mattie passed out under the piano after too many martinis (?) and her boyfriend Alex made made moves on another girl.

Your Choice

Grammarians say that you can replace all my question marks with commas if you please. Personally, I’d omit them after “white” in the first sentence and “cat” in the second. The sentences are perfectly clear without them. The tendency among writers these days is to conserve on punctuation rather than dot their manuscripts with unnecessary commas, semicolons, colons and dashes.

My Preference

In the third and fourth sentences I’d insert commas after “dog” and “martinis.” Why? Without the comma after “dog,” the reader might initially think that the cat scratched both the dog and the child. In the fourth sentence, without a final comma the reader might get the impression that Alex’s moves on another girl caused Mattie to pass out under the piano.

I vote for clarity first, brevity second. If the Oxford comma eliminates ambiguity, I use it.

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