A strangely hot-button debate in the world of grammar is over a very small punctuation choice: the Oxford comma, or the comma that appears before the final item in a list.
In most cases, unless you are following a set style guide, the use of a comma before the final item in a list is optional. There are occasions, however, when using the comma provides greater clarity in a sentence.
Here are some tips for choosing whether or not to use the Oxford comma, or any commas at all, in your lists.
The Oxford comma
When formatting a list, the independent items are most often separated by commas. This is done to provide clarity; it marks the transition from one item to the next.
- The dish is made with beans, rice, and chicken.
- The colors of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
The comma that appears before the final list item is a required grammatical mark according to the Oxford University Press publishing guide. So, it’s become known as the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the serial comma because of its place in a series of words.
Some professionals in modern years have asserted that the Oxford comma isn’t strictly necessary, and have opted to drop it from their writing.
- The dish is made with beans, rice and chicken.
- The colors of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
This style of writing is more popular in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States, though the trend isn’t isolated there. It’s more popularly used in academic writing than it is in creative writing or in news copy.
In most cases, unless you are following a specific style guide that requires it – such as the Oxford University Press publishing guide, Chicago Manual of Style, or MLA Style Manual – you are free to choose whether or not you use the Oxford comma in your writing as long as you are consistent about your choice.
When to break Oxford comma conventions
There are some cases in which you should break the conventions of your style guide or cultural writing preference and use the Oxford comma. In these cases, choosing to omit the comma at the end of a list would drastically change the meaning of the sentence. For example:
- I enjoy my family, The Beatles, and my dog.
In the above sentence, the speaker identifies three things they enjoy independently.
- I enjoy my family, The Beatles and my dog.
In the omitting version, the speaker identifies that they enjoy one thing: their family, which consists of The Beatles and their dog.
The omission of the Oxford comma can transform a list into a descriptive phrase. The Oxford comma is necessary in cases like this where choosing not to use it would confuse the reader.
Other list formatting options
Not all lists require commas in general. There are some exceptions to regular list formatting.
- If a list has only two items, they need only be separated with a conjunction such as “and” or “or.”
- I like eggs and cheese.
- If a list’s items are longer or contain commas of their own, they can be separated with semicolons.
- The competition spanned Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; Madrid, Spain; and London, England.
- If the list is presented in a bulleted or numbered format, it doesn’t need conjunctions or commas at the end of the items. You may, however, choose to use them.
- Tom had three goals:
- Get good grades
- Join a sport
- Find a date
- As a note, when choosing between bullets and numbers for a list, consider whether the items can be prioritized. If they can, use numbers. If they can’t, use bullets.
- Tom had three goals:
It’s always wise to reference your specific style guide to see which list formatting options you are following. It’s also a good idea to re-read your writing and ensure that your list formatting, however you do choose to do it, is consistent across the entire piece.
Here’s an opinion that’s liable to garner some upset: much to the chagrin of many passionate grammarians, the Oxford comma is relatively unimportant.
This particular quirk of the English language may be the subject of furious debate, but in the end, it’s really only necessary in a few cases, whether for the reader’s clarity or uniformity across a large body of publishing. In the rest, there is no right or wrong answer as to whether you should or shouldn’t include it.
It’s largely a matter of personal preference and makes very little difference in the quality of the writing. Unless you are required to use it, you should choose whether or not to include the Oxford comma based on your own preferences.