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What is the Oxford Comma and When to Use It?

In the age-old debate of a comma before “and”, there seems to be no end in sight. Some argue it’s necessary to make sentences flow better and enhance understanding, while others see no reason and omit it without thinking twice. To use or not to use the Oxford (serial) comma is a sensitive topic – though much of it lands on personal preference. Below, Marketing by Margaret will further define the Oxford comma (with examples!) and provide some situations when its use is appropriate, despite what other grammar police might say.

What is the Oxford Comma?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the Oxford comma as: “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’.” In many cases, its presence is helpful, increasing readability when listing items. For example, if we’re excited about a lineup at an upcoming concert, we can write: “I’m so excited to see Beyonce, BTS, and Taylor Swift!”

If you left out the Oxford comma: “I’m so excited to see Beyonce, BTS and Taylor Swift!” It almost sounds as if you’re going to see BTS and T. Swift on the stage together. So, to clarify, you should add the extra punctuation to be on the safe side.

However, there are some cases where the Oxford comma can confuse the message. For instance, the sentence “ I want to study with my classmates, Ben, and Jerry.” From how this sentence reads, it sounds like you’re going with your classmates and two friends. It would be better and more accurately written as: “I want to study with my classmates, Ben and Jerry.

Though it might not seem like a big deal, these subtleties have been the reason behind a long-standing debate and even won a few truck drivers millions of dollars after a successful lawsuit.

A Brief History of the Oxford Comma

In 1905, Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press, wrote his treatises on rules for readers and publishers alike: Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers. While it was meant to facilitate written communications and summarize and standardize punctuation rules, it sparked quite a debate more than a hundred years later.

In 2014, a group of truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy, a family-owned dairy out of the state of Maine due to a dispute of unclear meaning due to a missing piece of punctuation. The lack of a comma at the end of a clause meant to explain overtime pay led the truck drivers to a successful case, earning $5 million in “unpaid” wages. As you can imagine, this added fuel to the fiery Oxford comma debate – this time giving Oxford comma enthusiasts the upper hand.

Who Should Use Oxford Commas

As one can imagine, whether or not to use the Oxford comma became a bigger deal post-lawsuit. Companies across the nation scoured over contracts, ensuring nothing could be considered “doubtful” in their legal documentation. As far as the average writer goes, the rules are much laxer when choosing to use the Oxford comma. Those in professional fields should decide whether or not to use the Oxford comma by considering the following.


If you’re in a professional field that publishes in academic journals, it’s best to check publication requirements. They typically have a long list of formatting specifications, some of which include punctuation.

Overall Message

Taking a second to read over a sentence should help you to understand whether or not your idea is clear. Sometimes, adding that extra pause in a sentence – or within a series of items, helps to clarify your message.

Your Preferred Style

As a professional or freestyle writer, most of the Oxford commas in your writing will come down to personal preference. You can switch up your use of them in some cases and omit them in others to better get your words across.

When To Use the Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, provides a way to add organization to sentences. Adding a list of items to a sentence helps to separate them, showing that each one was added individually. While all commas do that, the Oxford comma distinguishes the last two items in a series, showing that they are independent of one another.

Yes, that may sound good in words, but how exactly would we apply that? A few examples to show the power of Oxford commas are listed below.

  • Her favorite weekend activities are reading books, taking walks in the park, listening to classical music, and catching up with friends.
  • Amanda, John, Megan, Peter, and Paul are coming to the park with us.
  • You can use either white, red, blue, or pink roses.

As you can see, these Oxford comma examples make the sentences more readable and easier to understand. With them, you may get lost in all of words able to distinguish their meanings by reading them over a few times.

Awkward Oxford Comma Mistakes

In some cases, Oxford commas are necessary. Without them, the entire meaning of the sentence can be misinterpreted, sometimes awkwardly. Some examples include:

Ex. On your way to the party can you bring Mason, a DJ and bartender?

Explanation: This sentence would be okay but only if Mason were a bartender and a DJ (that’s a lot of work!). To separate them, you’d need to add an Oxford comma before and, specifying that Mason, the DJ, and the bartender are all different people.

Ex. This salon offers a shampoo, cut and blow dry and style for just under $30.

Explanation: It sounds like they’re offering the grouping of services for just under $30. This could cause confusion for clients, not knowing if each service is under $30 or if shampoo, cut, blow dry, and style are all $30. 

There are several occasions to add an Oxford comma, most of which add clarity and structure to sentences. When in doubt, read your sentence, making sure it makes sense and sounds good before moving forward.

Trust the Blog Writing Experts at Marketing by Margaret

If you have any questions regarding the style or flow of your blog, do not hesitate to mention them to your Marketing by Margaret writer. If you prefer whether our authors use the Oxford comma in your white-label blogs, please let us know. All of our blogs come with unlimited, free revisions.

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