Tip of the Week #4: Oxford: So Fancy It’s Got Its Own Comma

The serial comma—also called the Oxford (yes, that Oxford) comma—is one of my favorite pieces of punctuation. And I’m not the only one. It even has its own Facebook page. Seriously.

As you know, commas are used for a vast number of tasks, including separating items in a list:

  • one, two, three
  • red, white, blue
  • Kim, Kourtney, Khloe

The serial comma is the comma before the “and” or “or” at the end of a list:

  • We need cups, plates, knives, forks, and napkins for the picnic.
  • Should we serve chicken, hot dogs, or salad?

Newspapers and many magazines tend not to use serial commas (because their punctuation follows Associated Press style, a topic for another week!), but serial commas are typically the rule for books.

Very often, leaving out a serial comma won’t affect how a sentence reads. But in other cases that little guy can make all the difference in the world. I’m partial to the serial comma because it can help prevent amusing (or alarming) misreads.

Here’s an example:

  • Elouisa arrived with her puppies, Clara, and Winston.
  • Elouisa arrived with her puppies, Clara and Winston.

To get the full effect, try reading both sentences aloud—and be sure to pause after each comma.

The serial comma in the first example is the one that comes before “and Winston.” The meaning is clear: Elouisa walked in the door with a) her puppies, b) her friend Clara, and c) her decorator Winston.

But in the second sentence—the one without the serial comma—we might think our girl waltzed in with just her two puppies, whose names are Clara and Winston.

One of your tasks as a writer is to communicate yourself well to your readers. In a case like this one, some readers might know exactly what you mean immediately. But occasionally, one might end up doing a double take and then having to puzzle out your intent.

Using the serial comma consistently will make it clear when you are talking about what:

  • puppies and Clara and Winston (because you’ll always write it the first way); or
  • two puppies, C and W (because you’ll always write it the second way).

Serial commas for the win! And don’t forget to like the Facebook page.

Here’s to the next draft,


P.S. Got a burning question about writing rules or best practices? Drop me a note at info@seaneverdry.com or reach out on Twitter or Facebook!

Questions? Send an e-mail to info@seaneverdry.com.

Follow Sea Never Dry on Twitter!

Copyright Sea Never Dry. All rights reserved.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.