Column: What’s the deal with the Oxford comma?

Question: “Hey Jordan. My ten year old daughter, my wife, and I are in quite a conundrum. When listing nouns in a sentence, is a comma used before the conjunction ‘and’ or ‘or?’ My daughter thinks it is, my wife thinks it is not, and I think it’s acceptable with or without a comma. So, who is correct, my daughter, my wife or yours truly?” – (James Swick)

Answer: The serial, or Oxford, comma is a hotly debated subject in the grammar world. Let’s talk briefly about who uses it, and why.

If you’re a serial comma fan, you’re in good company. The bulk of style guides call for using the serial comma (APA, MLA and “The Chicago Manual of Style,” to name a few). The serial comma is also the standard used in the U.S. Government Printing Office, so it gets Uncle Sam’s seal of approval as well.

People who don’t use it: The Associated Press, the Canadian Press and the Brits (although it is mandated by the Oxford University Press, where it gets its name).

The major point upon which arguments for and against the Oxford Comma stand is the creation or resolution of ambiguity. Consider the following sentences:

  • “My uncle, JFK, and a group of senators toured the base.”
  • “I saw the movie with two kids from school, Tom and Jerry.”

In the first sentence, the serial comma creates ambiguity. Is JFK an appositive naming the speaker’s uncle or merely the second person in a list? In the second sentence, including the comma would resolve the ambiguity of whether Tom and Jerry are the two kids from school or two other people who went to the movies.

The argument over the serial comma is endless and tiresome, so here is my maxim: I follow the appropriate style guide for the writing at hand (as a journalist, this means I use AP Style). If no style guide is more appropriate than another, I choose whichever construction leaves the least ambiguity. After all, if your readers don’t understand your writing, then it doesn’t matter how “technically correct” the serial comma is – you’ve failed to effectively communicate.