Use of the Oxford Comma

13 Jul 2015
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Oxford University

What is an Oxford comma?

In a list of three or more items, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (usually “and” / “or”) preceding the final item in the list. For German native speakers, the use of the Oxford comma is a common source of confusion. For, according to German grammar, using a serial comma is a capital sin.

Example with Oxford comma:
We have subsidiaries in France, Russia, and China.

Example without Oxford comma:
We have subsidiaries in France, Russia and China.

Why is the Oxford comma sometimes used in English?

One main reason for the use of the Oxford comma is to reduce ambiguity. Look at the following example that remains ambiguous without an Oxford comma:

I immediately called my superiors, Sally and Michael.  

This sentence could either mean that the speaker called his superiors, as well as Sally and Michael, or that Sally and Michael are in fact the speaker’s superiors. By using an Oxford comma in this sentence, one could clarify that one means the former: I immediately called my superiors, Sally, and Michael.

Who uses the Oxford comma?

This is hard to say. It is not a question of British vs. US English. For example, the Oxford Style Manual (2002) and the Chicago Manual of Style (2003) support the mandatory use of the Oxford comma, while The New York Times stylebook and The Economist style manual oppose it. In her bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), Lynne Truss sums up the issue nicely: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken” (p. 84).

To make a long story short:
As a German native speaker you don’t have to use the Oxford comma when writing English, but be aware of the fact that it may be used in English and that, depending on the sentence, it can be very helpful to reduce ambiguity.

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