I’ve had a lot of book reviews lately; sorry about that! I’ve gotten a lot of reading done lately, and that doesn’t even include my recent re-reading (via audiobook) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as read by Stephen Fry (short version: it’s great!).
But a friend today was moaning over people who didn’t understand the merits of the Oxford comma, and I said “Aha!” When I worked in newspapers, I never used the Oxford comma–and I may have even snubbed my nose at it a time or two (it’s true! Forgive me!). But when I worked in academia, it was required, and I came to love that little bugger.
The Oxford comma confuses people, but it’s actually very simple: When making a list, include a comma before the “and” in front of the final list item. Example: “Buy apples, oranges, and bananas.” The sweet little comma between “oranges” and “and”? That’s the Oxford comma.
Some people don’t use the Oxford comma–AP style, used by media organizations, rejects it–and that’s fine, most of the time. As long as the list still makes sense, it’s ok to drop it. The list “Buy apples, oranges and bananas” still makes sense without the Oxford comma! As long as you are consistent in your non-use of that third comma, you’re fine.
Sometimes you really do need that last comma for the sentence to make sense.
This fun little graphic does a good job explaining it:
But this is my absolute favorite visual explanation of the Oxford comma. It’s… a little less safe-for-all-audiences.
Strippers JFK and Stalin are just so fabulous.
Anyway, that’s the gist of the Oxford comma. Use it to make your writing clearer, or use it all the time, if you like. It’s just a helpful little tool to keep your lists organized.
And if you need some advanced grammar or style help, you can always hire a pro.