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Adventures With Punctuation: The Oxford Comma

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The Oxford comma (sometimes known as the serial comma) has kept grammar aficionados talking for years. Who knew that a simple piece of punctuation could cause so much controversy? The Oxford comma dates back to 1905 when it was introduced by Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press, in his book Rules for Compositors and Readers. Since then, writers and major language institutions have debated its use with no clear resolution.

What Is the Oxford Comma?

The Oxford comma refers to the final comma that occurs just before a coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more items. Here is a simple example:

Lucy loves her friends, Taylor Swift, and Mickey Mouse.

In the example above, the Oxford comma is used after “Taylor Swift” and before “and.” Here is the same example given without the use of the Oxford comma:

Lucy loves her friends, Taylor Swift and Mickey Mouse.

This specific piece of punctuation is commonly used by institutions such as the MLA, Chicago Style Manual, and the US Government Printing Office. In English-speaking countries outside of the US, however, it is much less common to see the Oxford comma being used.

The Big Debate

So, why is this comma so heavily debated? Many writers in favour of the Oxford comma argue that without it, it can be difficult to distinguish the last two items as separate entities from the first. If we take a look at our example above, the sentence that doesn’t use the Oxford comma may suggest that Lucy’s friends are Taylor Swift and Mickey Mouse.

However, those against the Oxford comma argue that this confusion can be dismissed by a simple reordering of the items, such as:

Lucy loves Taylor Swift, Mickey Mouse and her friends.

To Use It, or Not To Use It?

Whether you incorporate the Oxford comma into your writing is largely up to you. Although you should stay consistent with the writing style you are using (ex. MLA vs. APA), there is no clear answer as to whether the Oxford comma is ‘correct’ grammar. Try it out for yourself and see which style you like best!

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