I was training government staff in plain English writing the other day, and one course participant asked me about the Oxford comma: when should one use it? And then Rajan Venkataraman, who supports Hit Send’s fast-turnaround editing service, wrote a blog explaining exactly that. Thanks Rajan.
In sentences that describe a list of things, each item in the list is separated by a comma. But what about the last two items?
For example, consider the sentence,
‘On the farm, there are cows, horses, goats, and chickens.’
What do you think of the comma after the word ‘goats’? If you agree with it being there, then you are a fan of the Oxford comma.
The Oxford comma – also called the ‘serial comma’ and ‘Harvard comma’ – is much more popular in America than it is in Australia. However, fans of the two different approaches are passionate about their preferred style.
Those who don’t use it argue that the purpose of commas in a list is to replace the connecting words ‘and’ (or ‘or’) so that we don’t have to say, ‘On the farm, there are cows and horses and goats and chickens.’ Since the ‘and’ is retained between the last two items in the list, then having a comma as well as ‘and’ is unnecessary.
Pretty straightforward, right? Then, what is the argument in favour of the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma in lists of longer items
We didn’t have a problem with the goats and chickens, but how about this list?
‘Our dinner menu tonight includes chicken, beef, fish and chips and seafood.’
There is a valid argument for putting the Oxford comma in after chips, so that it’s clear the ‘fish and chips’ are one item that belong together. That’s obvious to us, but how about this example?
‘Divisions competing for budget allocation are Marketing, Students and Learning and Research.’
Without an Oxford comma, can you be clear whether Students and Learning is one division, or Learning and Research is one? The Oxford comma in the following version makes it clear:
‘Divisions competing for budget allocation are Marketing, Students and Learning, and Research.’
Removing ambiguity with an Oxford comma
Consider this sentence:
‘I went to the party with my brother, a famous actor and a prize-winning novelist.’
Does this sentence mean that I went to the party with three people or does it mean that my brother is a famous actor and a prize-winning novelist? The meaning of the sentence is ambiguous and fans of the Oxford comma say that including a comma after the word ‘actor’ would make clear to the reader that the sentence is a list of three people.
Of course, there is more than one way to remove ambiguity. The alternative meaning of the above sentence could be conveyed through a small editorial change:
‘I went to the party with my brother who is a famous actor and a prize-winning novelist.’
This has the added benefit of being clear, whether the sentence is written or spoken.
In Australia, most style guides recommend leaving out the Oxford comma. However, public service style guides, for example, allow them to be used where confusion could arise or where the items in the list are more complicated than simple one-word names. In other words, a fair amount of judgement is involved.
When editing your documents at Hit Send, we will follow your style guide – if you have one. If you don’t, we will look for consistency across your document and look for ways to remove any potential ambiguity in the meaning of your sentences.