When should you use the Oxford comma?

It’s the grammar pedant’s Marmite – but is there ever a genuine reason to use an Oxford comma? Ben explains all.

Oxford commas are useful.

The Oxford comma is a funny one – well-loved in academic circles, sure, but ultimately underused.

(Though not as underused as the semicolon.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems likely the last time pop culture paid it any mind was when Vampire Weekend asked, “who gives a **** about it?” And as catchy as their jangly Paul Simon ape may be, the answer is “a whole bunch of people”.

So, what is an Oxford comma exactly? Put simply, it’s a comma placed before “and” in the penultimate entry of a list. For example:

“Ben really fancied a night in drinking cheap lager, munching tortilla chips, and watching Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.”

Birth of a legend

The Oxford comma originates from the Oxford University Press, where it was traditionally used by its writers and editors. Across the pond, they have the Associated Press, which has never formally adopted its use, making the Oxford comma traditionally optional in American English.

However, as you may or may not have noticed, the Oxford comma is commonly neglected in British English too. Whether that’s a result of laziness, the Americanisation of British language, or the Oxford style guide itself – I could not say.

So, what good is it?

Here’s the fun bit. Let’s play with a couple of basic sentences, and I’ll let you be the judge of how useful it is in practice:

“My stupid husband is writing a book about Neil Diamond, a sexual deviant and a terrible sous chef.”

Now, let’s try that with an Oxford comma:

“My stupid husband is writing a book about Neil Diamond, a sexual deviant, and a terrible sous chef.”

Ah, cool – sounds like a cracking read. Notice how Neil Diamond is no longer a sexual deviant? Or a terrible sous chef? The Oxford comma is important.

What do our writers think?

Personally, I’m guilty of forgetting to use it, but as of now, I’m turning a new leaf. I’m a fan.

Anyway, let’s see what my fellow writers think:

Senior copywriter Steve George has long been a comma evangelist, and it frequently plays a starring role in his copy. And when it comes to the Oxford comma, Steve says:

“I use the Oxford comma whenever I can get away with it; that is to say, whenever a client’s style guide and preferences don’t outright forbid it. I learned to love it when working for US-based clients who requested I use it, and now I naturally want to use it in every sentence.”

David McGuire, creative director, resident Oxford graduate and general enthusiast of all things grammatically correct, says:

“I’m naturally biased towards Oxford commas, because Oxford. I don’t use them all the time, but I must admit to feeling a little glow when clarity demands I pull one out of the toolkit. (And I hate it when brand style guides prohibit them.)”

A closing thought

Whether or not this piece convinced you to spend more time using (or admiring) the Oxford comma – thank you for reading. Just remember, it’s not there to make life harder for the reader; it’s there to make the copy better.

I’ll leave with you with a quote from fellow copywriter and business development exec Nick Prescott, whose level-headed take seems a fitting sign-off:

“Let’s be honest, not using the Oxford comma doesn’t signal the breakdown of civilisation, but if it prevents someone re-reading a sentence, even once, then it’s done its job.”

The Oxford comma – a good lad.

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