Why You Should Always Use the Oxford Comma
The Oxford Comma is defined as the final comma used before the word “and” or “or” at the end of a list of three or more things. There are many proponents and adversaries to the Oxford Comma, but I’m here to bring forth my case as a strong supporter of the comma and why I believe it makes your writing clearer.
The purpose of the comma is to separate words, phrases, or ideas in order to prevent ambiguity and confusion for the reader.
If I were to write “let’s eat Tom,” instead of “let’s eat, Tom,” you can see where the confusion might occur. The correct use of the comma may be the difference between Tom being eaten and not being eaten. It also just makes more sense — unless you really do want to eat Tom.
The use of the Oxford Comma is generally up to the writer, and you’ll typically see a lot of writing that uses or doesn’t use it. While there isn’t technically a correct stance on the issue, I believe that I’ll be on the right side of history in this debate.
That’s because the comma separates the words or ideas at the end of a list so as to not lose the writer’s intended meaning of the sentence.
Let’s look at an example of the same sentence with and without the Oxford Comma where your objective is to separate each part of the list:
1) I am going to the beach with my parents, John and Lily.
2) I am going to the beach with my parents, John, and Lily.
In the first example without the Oxford Comma, it can be interpreted two different ways:
My parents’ names are John and Lily, or John and Lily are two separate people that I went to the beach with.
Without preceding context, you would be unsure of which category to put John and Lily into.
As for the second example, the ambiguity of the categorization of John and Lily is removed. Just from reading that sentence, we know that we can group John and Lily into separate categories than my parents. It’s clear that my parents are coming, but John and Lily are coming too. There doesn’t need to be any preceding context to draw that conclusion.
To play devil’s advocate, you could say “but what if John and Lily are actually my parents? How would I write that if the first sentence could be interpreted as ambiguous?” To that I would say, “I am going with my parents John and Lily to the beach.”
Prior context does matter too. If John and Lily had been established as my parents earlier in the text, the first example would be acceptable. If they had not been established as such, we’ll want to stick to the Oxford Comma if the goal is to separate all of them.