Oxford Comma: What is it, and how do I use it?

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:

If you don’t get it at first, read the second version aloud, pausing to take a breath at the comma.

But this is my absolute favorite visual explanation of the Oxford comma. It’s… a little less safe-for-all-audiences.

This has floated around the internet so much, I have no idea of the original source. Whoever you are, thank you! This is my favorite grammar comic of all time.

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.


Filed under Editing, writing

4 responses to “Oxford Comma: What is it, and how do I use it?

  1. It was the strippers one that got me trying to use the Oxford comma as much as possible. 😆

  2. I love an Oxford comma! But I sometimes think it looks a little unnecessary in one-word lists — is it okay to only use the OC some of the time?

    • Consistency within a document is the most important thing–if you use the Oxford every place but one, if will look like a mistake to a sharp-eyed reader. I recommend picking one style or another and running with it.

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