The Oxford (serial) comma is a significant stylistic component in English academic writing, known for its use in complex list structures. Its application can greatly influence the clarity of written content in academic discourse, making it a controversial, yet essential, element to consider in academic writing. Understanding the rules and implications surrounding the Oxford comma not only enhances readability but also minimizes ambiguity, underscoring its indispensable role in the cogent presentation.
Definition: Oxford (serial) comma
The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma in American English.
If more than two items are listed in a sentence, a comma should be used before the “and” that introduces the final item in that list. This comma’s purpose is to present a sentence’s correct meaning and avoid ambiguity.
Avoiding ambiguities with the Oxford comma
The Oxford (serial) comma is one of the most common punctuations in English grammar.
Even though this comma may not change the grammatical correctness of a sentence, the lack of it may lead to ambiguity in your writing.
Thus, incorporating the Oxford comma may help you avoid wrong expressions and improve your writing style.
The Oxford comma in American vs. British English
American English style guides usually urge you to use the Oxford (serial) comma when listing three or more items.
In contrast, British English style guides usually urge you to leave the Oxford (serial) comma out.
However, when it is necessary to involve an Oxford (serial) comma to avoid ambiguity, both, American and British style guides, recommend using it.
As this sentence may be understood as either that the dogs are named Peter and Oscar or you going out with the dogs and two other people, who are called Peter and Oscar, the Oxford (serial) comma is relevant to use in order to express the correct meaning.
Here, the sentence expresses that you are going out with the dogs and two people named Peter and Oscar.
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The Oxford (serial) comma is placed before the “and” that introduces the last subject in a list of at least three.
In the U.S., it is also known as the serial comma and is much more used than in British English.
If you’re unsure whether to use an Oxford (serial) comma, try writing out your sample sentences with and without it. This will give you a better overview of whether the sentences are ambiguous or not.
If a sentence has two different meanings, it may be relevant to add an Oxford (serial) comma in order to clarify its intended meaning.
In order to avoid ambiguity, you may use the Oxford comma to clarify the intended meanings of lists. For example:
Without an Oxford comma:
- He wants to visit his parents, Brady and Simone.
Here, it may be depicted that his parents are called Brady and Simone.
With an Oxford comma:
- He wants to visit his parents, Brady, and Simone.
Here, it may be depicted that he wants to visit his parents and two other people called Brady and Simone.
When three or more items are listed, the Oxford (serial) comma is used much more in American English than in British English.
In British English, the Oxford (serial) comma is only used when it is necessary to clarify meaning and avoid ambiguities.