The Oxford Comma: Heave it or Leave it?

In this week's Dear Megan column, our resident style maven goes head to head with the Oxford comma.

OK people, take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale. Today we’re tackling a pretty serious style issue*: the Oxford comma.

Whoa, Dear Megan, I’m sure you’re thinking, This is only our second blog post together. Isn’t it a little soon?

It really is. But you can credit (blame) gentle reader Melody Valdez, who posted the first and only question of Dear Megan (things will pick up):

oxford comma question

Dear MeganAm I for or against the Oxford comma, Melody? Why don’t you ask how I feel about punching babies or worshipping Satan? Or Republicans, for that matter?

Kidding, I’m kidding. Sort of. You are correct; AP does not use the Oxford comma, and therefore, neither do I. The Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma (like serial killer, just sayin’)—is the comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) in a series of three or more. For example:

“Robert Downey Jr. showered me with diamonds, furs, and chocolates.”

See that last little comma between “furs” and “and”? That’s the Oxford comma, and it’s evil.

OK, OK. It isn’t precisely evil, but if you haven’t already guessed, opinions do run to extremes when it comes to this particular piece of punctuation. Even Oxford agrees. According to the “Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language:”

“Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence … Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice** is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.”

Use of it is mostly a matter of style and loyalty. Here’s how some key camps break it down:

  • Those who follow the “MLA Style Manual,” “The Chicago Manual of Style” and Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” use it (#barbarians)
  • Devotees of “The Associated Press Stylebook,” “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” and “The Canadian Press Stylebook” do not (#civilizedhumanbeings)

Omitting the Oxford comma was most likely an effort by many publications, especially newspapers, to save space. Whether you should use it depends on the style of the publication for which you are writing. Standard American journalism—including us fine folks here at ClearVoice—follows AP style.

Dear Megan, Is There No Exception?

Yes, there is. And it’s a pretty big one. If it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity, use it. A couple examples:

  • Robert Downey Jr. and I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast in bed.
  • The main points to consider are whether Robert Downey Jr. should get a divorce, whether we should date for a while or get married quickly, and whether I need serious mental help.

See? I think we can all agree that the Oxford comma is called for in these two cases. As for Robert Downey Jr. and me … well, that’s a whole other issue.***

While you’re formulating your response (yes, I really want to know what you’re thinking!), enjoy this musical interlude:

* Note I didn’t write a “controversial” or “contentious” issue. Why not? As per AP: “All issues are controversial. A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.” My God, I love AP (#stylegods)

** Notice they didn’t write, “The issue is controversial.” Why? Hint: ^

*** You will never forget this whole bit about issues being inherently controversial. You’re welcome.

Got a question for Dear Megan? Ask away in the comments field below.

Tags: freelancing

Category: Editing
Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • JeffNappi

    Great piece Megan – I laughed, I cried, and I smiled.

    • Megan Krause

      thanks Jeff — always good to find someone else who gets moved by proper punctuation

    • Megan Krause

      I see what you did there, Nappi

  • Mike Bernardez

    I agree, as long as it helps with clarity it’s got its place. Here’s Mr. Sulu’s argument for it:

    • Megan Krause

      thanks Mike! extra points to you for mastering the it’s/its conundrum (in your comment) #winning

  • Sara Parker

    Thanks for the insight Megan! Although, the Oxford comma should always be used because it always clarifies the sentence. #iloveoxfordcommas

    • Megan Krause

      … …

      • Cherie Joy

        #TeamMegan…I am on your side! It is evil eye-sore 😛

        • Megan Krause

          Right on Cherie… you’re the voice of reason among the malfeasance #iblametheiryouth

    • Erin Cline

      I am professionally required to follow the AP guidelines; HOWEVER, I agree with Sara. #OxCom4eva

  • Mike Shipley

    I share your opinion of Republicans, but will have to disagree on Oxford Commas. #OxRocks

    • Megan Krause

      oh mikester… so on point in some areas, so wayward in others… *sigh*

  • Virginia C Nelson

    Megan, another wonderful post! Sara and Erin…I feel like I don’t even know you guys. #OxComBooHiss #TeamMeganRules

    • Megan Krause


  • Oh jesus christ “it’s ok if…” but not any other time = BS. I’m not going to sit around mind-reading the clarity landing in readers’ heads. I’m going to use the comma and move on with my life. Quickly.

    • Megan Krause

      That’s a bold move, Josh A. I disagree with your decision — but, I like your chutzpah.

  • Noelley Krause

    Mom, I’m currently at school and asking Oriana, she says she uses and Oxford comma, as do my teachers. hmph.

  • Courtney Craig

    Dear Megan,
    Do you think there are any issues with the AP Style Guide or things that no longer make sense in today’s version of journalism?