The Oxford Comma – Is it Really Necessary?

What's All The Fuss About?

Have you ever heard of the so-called Serial Comma, Series Comma, or Oxford Comma?

(Hint: An example of it can be found in the above sentence).

It's an element of style in English that is unknown to many translators.

If you translate from the Portuguese-English pair, the information we're about to share could be very important.

In essence, the Oxford comma, which derives its name from the Oxford University Press, is used in a sentence that lists three or more items and is placed before the coordinating conjunction −'and' or 'or' − that precedes the last item.

Can you find the OXFORD COMMA in the opening sentence?

In Portuguese, the use of a comma before the conjunction 'and' is allowed only when we want to emphasize something or introduce a pause. Otherwise, we don't use it.

Moreover, the serial comma isn't used by many other languages, such as Portuguese, French, German, and Italian.

Is the Serial Comma Really Necessary?

In English, when we have more than two elements separated by a comma, the second to the last element must be followed by a comma, largely because it removes any ambiguity in a sentence by clearly delineating and separating each item.

Let us put a finer point on this last comment.

The U.S. ranks at the top of the list of Oxford comma users. Most American English style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Style Guide, the APA Stylebook, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and the United States Government Printing Office, require the use of the serial comma.

When should an Oxford comma be added?

 

Ironically, most British authorities oppose its use, with the exception of Fowler's Modern English Usage and the Oxford University Press. Canada, Australia, and South Africa also refrain from using it.

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, used by journalists, has this to say:

"If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma!"

However, when you read articles from magazines or news outlets, you'll probably notice the lack of the serial comma because it takes up space on a page.

See below two examples of how the serial comma is used in English.

Make sure not to feed your dog chocolate, Macadamia nuts, avocado, onions, garlic, grapes, or raisins.

What I remember most about my grandmother is that she liked to read the Bible, do knitting and embroidery, and help out at the church.

On the other hand, omitting the Oxford comma can result in embarrassing misunderstandings. See the example below.

During the interview, the celebrity stated that she draws inspiration from cooking her family and her dog.

Jesus! Omitting the serial comma creates a disturbing scenario, doesn't it?

Now compare the same sentence with serial commas in place.

During the interview, the celebrity stated that she draws inspiration from cooking, her family, and her dog.

Legal and business guides mandate the use of the Oxford comma because it's more precise and eliminates ambiguities, which could have serious and costly repercussions.

The company's website includes instructional manuals, links to other sites and items for sale.

(Are the items for sale on the company's website or linked to the other sites?)

The company's website includes instructional manuals, links to other sites, and items for sale.

With the Oxford comma, it's now clear that the items for sale are on the company's website.

Treating two different things as one.

He was charged with trespassing, burglary, and assault and battery.

In this case, the Oxford comma makes it clear that assault and battery, which are two separate offenses, is being treated as a single unit.

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