What is an Oxford Comma

Oxford commas are one of the most hotly debated topics in the grammar world! Before you pick sides in the debate, read on to make sure you are well-equipped with all the facts to take on your opposition of Oxford comma lovers or haters!

What Is an Oxford Comma?

An Oxford comma is the name of the last comma in a list of items, usually coming after the word “and” or “or”.

For example, “I learned about Oxford commas in middle school, high school, and college!”  In this sentence there are two commas. The first comma comes between two list items- middle school and high school. The second is the Oxford comma! It comes after the word high school because it’s followed by a conjunction, the word “and”.

Why Use Oxford Commas?

Without oxford commas, lists can be confusing and you might not always understand the meaning of the sentence correctly. For example, take a look at this sentence written out two different ways— the only change is one has an Oxford comma and the other sentence doesn’t:

  1. “Brad was sent to the Principal’s office along with two girls, Jamie and Alex.”
  2. “Brad was sent to the Principal’s office along with two girls, Jamie, and Alex.”

The oxford comma completely changes the meaning of the sentence! In the first sentence, it sounds like 3 people are headed to the principal’s office: Brad and two girls– named Jamie and Alex. In the second sentence, it sounds like 5 people are headed there. Brad, two unnamed girls, and two other people named Jamie and Alex.

Can you think of any other examples where an oxford comma changes the meaning of a sentence? Sometimes the misunderstandings can be pretty funny!

Why Is It Called An Oxford Comma?

The Oxford Comma is named after the style guide created by Horace Hart at the Oxford University Press in 1905. “Hart’s Rules of Compositors” was updated in 2014 and is now known as “New Hart’s Rules” — but it still includes the Oxford comma as part of it’s style guide!

Is A Serial Comma The Same As An Oxford Comma?

The Oxford Comma is known by a few different names, including the serial comma, series comma, and the Harvard comma. They are all the same thing but different style guides call it different things! For example, in the APA Style and Grammar Guidelines they say, “use a serial comma (also called an Oxford comma, Harvard comma, or series comma) between elements in a series of three or more items.”

Are There Situations Where You Shouldn’t Use An Oxford Comma?

For those who know what the Oxford comma is— they usually have a pretty strong opinion on its use— even the stylebooks disagree on when to use it! For example, the AP Stylebook says you shouldn’t use it unless the sentence is unclear without it but the Chicago Manual of Style almost always recommends it!

The two style books would probably disagree on using the Oxford comma in this sentence: “I bought eggs, bananas and apples.” That’s because the sentence means the same thing regardless of if you use the Oxford comma or not. The AP Stylebook would tell you not to use the Oxford comma in this case but The Chicago Manual of Style would say you should use it anyway!

When Should I Use Oxford Commas?

So if the stylebooks don’t agree on when to use the Oxford comma, how are we supposed to know when to use it?! The answer to this question is to make sure you check what stylebook you are supposed to be using for your writing! If you are writing for a class, ask your teacher which stylebook they grade your writing on or even just ask them more specifically if they would like you to use Oxford commas or not.

So where do you stand in the debate? Do you use the Oxford comma always, sometimes, or never? You can probably tell where we stand on the debate— we used three Oxford commas in this article (beyond our examples)! Can you find all three?