Beginning writers sometimes express confusion when they first hear the term “Oxford comma.” I can almost see them thinking, “A comma’s a comma. What does Oxford have to do with anything?”
The Oxford comma, so named because it was preferred by the Oxford University Press, is simply the comma that appears before the word “and” in a list of items.
She enjoys reading, gardening, and cooking.
Use of the Oxford comma is preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style, the publishing Bible for those of us who write and edit books.
Another popular publishing style is the one favored by the newspapers of the Associated Press. AP Style does not use the Oxford comma, so those using AP Style would write the above sentence this way:
She enjoys reading, gardening and cooking.
Both those sentences are clear to me, but after spending the last four years teaching my AP Style–trained mind to “think” in Chicago Style, I now see the wisdom of the Oxford comma. What about this sentence:
Our sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.
Most of us familiar with American sandwich fillings would assume that the list was designed to indicate four fillings: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef 4) peanut butter and jelly. But to someone unfamiliar with our culinary preferences, it could be possible to think the choices were three: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.
To prevent a misread, we could write:
The sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef, and peanut butter and jelly.
Lately the Oxford comma has been in the news for legal and political reasons. Here you can read about the missing Oxford comma that’s causing headaches for a company in Maine. And here you can read about a bill in my own state that is causing some trouble because of a missing Oxford comma.
Do you use the Oxford comma? I do when editing books, and I don’t when writing press releases for organizations that plan to submit them to newspapers. And no, I don’t find it confusing to use two different styles. In fact, perhaps I might offer my editing services to the Georgia legislature!