The Oxford Comma

Opinions vary about its utility but I prefer to use Oxford comma whenever I can. It’s that optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list (also known as serial comma). For example, “Ina, Mina and Dika joined us.” can be written as “Ina, Mina, and Dika joined us.” with an additional comma a.k.a. the Oxford comma. In this particular example, it doesn’t add anything to clarify the meaning of the sentence, but it does improve prosody. In some other cases, an Oxford comma does help remove ambiguity. For example:

My sisters, Ina and Mina joined us.

This sentence is ambiguous because it’s unclear whether Ina and Mina are my sisters. If they are, then only two people joined us. Otherwise, two people in addition to my sisters (however many there may be) joined us. We can add Oxford comma before the word ‘and’ to remove this ambiguity:

My sisters, Ina, and Mina joined us.

Now it’s clear that Ina and Mina are two people – in addition to my sisters – who joined us. If you’re not convinced yet, see the comic below that highlights the usefulness of Oxford comma:

Here’s the Wikipedia link, and the comic is taken from Unlikely Words Tumbling.


6 responses to “The Oxford Comma

  1. VJ

    As usual, very interesting Vishal. Till date whenever I saw use of comma before the word ‘and’, I always thought that it was incorrectly used.

    It’s also very interesting to know how American English and British English use comma differently when using it with quotations. For eg., if I use the same sentence that you have in your article: “My sisters, Ina, and Mina joined us.” and let’s say that I want to write “Ina” and “Mina” in quotes, then:
    British way:
    My sisters, “Ina”, and “Mina” joined us. – use of comma outside quotes.
    American way:
    My sisters, “Ina,” and “Mina” joined us. – use of comma within quotes.

    Till I read about it, I always had thought that people who used it the American way were not using it right as to me quotes were related just to the word and not to the punctuation mark, but then I read about it and realized that it could be used either ways.

    Thanks again!

    • Ah, I wasn’t aware of this difference – will have to dig deeper into this. (I always thought that whether to put a punctuation mark within or outside the quotes depends on whether the punctuation applies to the quoted sentence or the entire sentence.) Thanks for your comments! 🙂

  2. The JFK/Stalin example is a little better than the Ina-Mina example. I think without the Oxford comma, the Ina-Mina sentence, as you have put it, indicates four persons joining ‘us’. [My sisters, Ina and Mina, joined us] would have been about the two sisters only.

    • Yeah, the JFK/Stalin example somehow registers more easily than the other one – even if both are exactly the same in terms of how they utilize the Oxford comma:

      We invited my sisters, Ina and Mina. ≈ We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

      We invited my sisters, Ina, and Mina. ≈ We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

  3. abhishek kakkerla

    it only removes ambiguity in writing and not while speaking . u cannot say “we invited strippers (comma) jfk comma and stalin” while talking to someone.
    so the sentence still is ambiguous.

    • I disagree, Abhishek. Punctuation marks, like comma and period, does help verbal communication as well. The presence of a comma does alter the verbal prose of a sentence. For example, you would say “Ladies and gentlemen” differently than “Ladies, and gentlemen”. The comma in the second phrase suggests that the speaker should add a brief pause before the word ‘and’.

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