Thompson Rivers University

To Oxford Comma or Not to Oxford Comma. That is the Question.

  Posted on: March 30, 2015

Did you know that there is a raging debate going on in the literary community over commas? Believe it or not, commas can be controversial and in particular the use of the Oxford comma has engendered much debate. It even has an alias: the serial comma.

The Oxford Comma is used in lists of three or more items before the word ‘and’. Example: “For my study session I need to bring paper, pencils, and a calculator”.

In many cases the Oxford comma is unnecessary (as in the example above). However, in some situations its absence can cause confusion. Example: “I’m having my favourite sandwich, coleslaw and chocolate cake.” Without the Oxford comma it seems as though the sandwich is made of coleslaw and chocolate cake.  Yuck!  This and other examples are illustrated in A Handy Guide for Using the Oxford Comma.

There are two ways to fix this sentence: add in an Oxford comma or reword the entire sentence to ensure clarity. For example: “I’m having my favourite sandwich with a side of coleslaw and chocolate cake for dessert.”

If writers around the world are arguing about the use Oxford commas, how should you decide what to do? Never fear! Unless your instructor provides you specific instructions on the matter you can choose to use it or not. While deciding whether or not to use the Oxford comma is not quite as dramatic as Hamlet’s internal struggle to live or commit suicide, whichever you do choose you should be consistent throughout all of your assignments and documents.