Monday, July 11, 2011

2 Key Things Writers Need to Know About the Oxford Comma

The vaunted Oxford comma has been in the news lately. To wit:

Never heard of the Oxford comma, you say? What's all this fuss about the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma is the comma that follows the last item in a series, just before the "and," "or," or some other conjunction. You might know it by its more popular name, the serial comma. (See below.)

Writers and English teachers know all about the Oxford comma. The rest of us, not so much.

Keys 1, and 2

To my mind, writers and authors need to know just two things about the Oxford comma, and two things only.

  1. The Oxford comma is helpful in managing lists. Most of the time we craft reasonably simple lists in which each item is independent and not tied conceptually to another item. Here are some examples:
  • The patient c/o nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • He grimaced, flexed his right leg, and pointed to his right lower quadrant

  • The drug is contraindicated in anaphylaxis, severe combined immunodeficiency, coma, reduced level of consciousness, or pregnancy.
But suppose one of the items needs to be clearly tied to another item? That's when the Oxford comma really shines. Notice the difference in meaning between these two lists:
  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker and a friend.

  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker, and a friend.
In the first, the wife was apparently the only visitor. In the second three people showed up.
  1. Conform to the publisher's style. Maybe you're a firm believer in the Oxford comma. Or maybe you would just as soon see it disappear forever. Whatever you think actually makes no difference when you're writing for publication. You need to know whether the publisher uses it, and if so, then you use it too.

    To find out what a particular publisher prefers, check a few of their books, journals, or magazines. Do you consistently see the Oxford comma? Then use it.

    If you don't see the comma used consistently, then assume you can either use it or ditch it, as you see fit.

My recommendation

Use it always. Makes life so much easier.

Now go forth and write, create, formulate, scribe, scribble, and publish!