What is the Oxford comma?

Legal English Punctuation

Punctuation in Legal English

The Oxford comma is one of the most controversial linguistic devices known to man. It is worth bearing in mind that it is far more common in American English than in British English so in a British newspaper you are unlikely ever to see it.


As Grammarly editor Brittney Ross told The Legal English School: “Oxford commas are like the Ugg boots of the punctuation world. People either love them or hate them or don’t know what they are.”


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What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford Dictionary has a good answer for us. Their definition of the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’.” For example:

“Today I had lunch with my flatmates, James, and Molly.”

Why put the comma between “James” and “and”? It clarifies to the reader that all three entities mentioned are separate and that Tom and Molly are not the speaker’s roommates, but additional friends. (If James and Molly are your roommates, you could say “…with my roommates, James and Molly” without the Oxford comma.) Here's another example of appropriate use of the Oxford comma.

“I can’t wait to see the Fratellis, the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, and Florence and the Machine this weekend!”

The Oxford comma serves a key purpose here, as Florence and the Machine is one musical act. Without it, the aforementioned amazing concert lineup becomes a jumbled mess. 


When should I use the Oxford comma?

Some people choose not to use it because it takes up space on a page; other people don’t like it simply because they were told in their English classes at school not to use it. Once again, we reiterate that it is far more common in American English than it is in British English but you should feel free to use it if you feel it is appropriate for your written work.


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