Thoughts on the Oxford Comma

When people hear I’ve published a book on writing, many of them ask for my views on the ‘Oxford’ or ’serial’ comma, in that intense ‘please confirm my own view’ sort of way.

The Oxford comma, so called because the University Press has long insisted on it, is used in lists: A, B, and C. Whether one needs the comma before the and is apparently one of the great punctuation controversies of our time.

Clinging to the Oxford comma seems to be a badge of honour for some, a beacon of erudition in a barbarous age. I’ve even seen it mentioned in online dating and Twitter profiles, presumably as an indication of moral rectitude and lofty personal standards. ‘Oxford Comma’ is also the title of a 2008 pop song by Vampire Weekend, but the band’s intention seems to be gentle mockery of the Society for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma, a Columbia student group.

Those, like the SPOC, with a weird attachment to the Oxford comma are usually disappointed when I say I don’t care about it one way or the other, and don’t think it necessary. (I do use Oxford commas in the book, because that’s my publisher’s house style; I’d prefer to dispense with them.)

I haven’t given the necessity point much thought until recently — but I now think I can justify what has hitherto been an off-hand comment.

In a list of two items, no commas are necessary if you use and to connect the items: A and B. Where you have more things to list, you need something to separate them: a comma or the word and. Otherwise, you might run into confusion: A B and C just isn’t the way we do things, especially where A B might seem like one thing, not two. You could do A and B and C, but it’s more usual, with longer lists in particular, to separate items with a comma. The and that precedes the final item in the list is therefore a replacement for the commas that separate the preceding items. As a result, I think one can say you need either a comma or and — but not both.

Use the Oxford comma before the final item if it makes you feel traditional or superior or particular, but it doesn’t add anything useful because you already have and separating the two final things in your list. Right?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. But what if your list includes the word “and”?

    Here’s an example. My favourite sandwiches, in order of preference, are the following: cheese, peanut butter and jelly, turkey and cheese[,] and roast beef.

    Don’t you need the Oxford comma here?

  2. There are times when the Oxford comma is helpful, as you suggest. Another example is ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Margaret Thatcher and God’; without a comma after ‘Thatcher’, it suggests some interesting parentage. But in a simple list where there wouldn’t be any ambiguity, I’d leave out the Oxford comma.

  3. Frankly, it is sentence dependant. Read the sentence “She took a photograph of her parents, the President and the Vice President.”

    With the Oxford comma there are four people. Without it, there are only two.

    It should be used when it clarifies the meaning of the sentence.

  4. I agree (and I make that point in my book and my reply to an earlier comment here), but in simple lists I think it’s superfluous.

  5. I think of the comma as a reminder when I am speaking to pause or take a breath. So the Oxford comma, while it may be redundant as punctuation, reminds me that a pause before the last item makes the list easier for the listener to absorb, especially if the judge is writing down my list of points.

  6. Thanks, Simon. That’s a useful point – although I suppose the ‘and’ before the final element in the list could perform the same function.

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