serial comma popcorn

One of the most heated debates that you can get into about the English language is whether or not people should use the Oxford comma when they write. The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is the comma before the “and” in a list of items. For example, in “I like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries,” the comma between “blueberries” and “and” is an Oxford comma.

Some people argue that the Oxford comma isn’t necessary because the “and” serves the function of separating the last and second-last items in the list. According to this approach, which is supported by some style guides (e.g., AP Stylebook and The Canadian Press Stylebook), we would write the example sentence like this: “I like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.” In this case, there’s no comma between “blueberries” and “and.”

In many sentences, leaving the Oxford comma out won’t change the meaning of the sentence or make the sentence more difficult to understand. Both “I like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries” and “I like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries” are pretty straightforward sentences. However, people who argue in favour of using the Oxford comma point out that there are situations where the Oxford comma plays an important role in clarifying the meaning of a sentence. For example, take a look at the following sentences:

  • “I like Marilyn Monroe, my father, and my boyfriend.”
  • “I like Marilyn Monroe, my father and my boyfriend.”

In the first example, it’s clear that the writer is referring to three people: Marilyn Monroe, her father, and her boyfriend. However, it’s possible to interpret the second sentence as “I like Marilyn Monroe, who is my father and my boyfriend.” As a reader, you would probably guess that the first interpretation is the correct one because the second one is pretty bizarre. In other cases, though, it may not be so easy to tell which way of interpreting the sentence is correct. Let’s take a look at these examples:

  • “I like Chicago mix popcorn, caramel popcorn, and cheddar cheese popcorn.”
  • “I like Chicago mix popcorn, caramel popcorn and cheddar cheese popcorn.”

In the first sentence, it’s clear that the reader is saying that she likes three types of popcorn: Chicago mix, caramel, and cheddar cheese. In the second sentence, however, it isn’t so clear. She may be saying that she likes three types of popcorn. On the other hand, she may be saying that she likes Chicago mix and then explaining what Chicago mix is. That is, you could read the second example as “I like Chicago mix popcorn, which is a combination of caramel and cheddar cheese popcorn.”Unlike in the Marilyn Monroe examples, it’s not so easy to make a guess about which interpretation is the correct one because both sentences describe plausible popcorn preferences that people may have. Also, not everyone knows what Chicago mix is, so it wouldn’t be that odd for someone to define it for a reader.

As you can see based on the popcorn examples, including versus excluding the Oxford comma may affect how readers interpret a sentence or at least make them less certain that their interpretation of a sentence is correct. For this reason, some style guides (e.g., APA, MLA, and Chicago) recommend using the Oxford comma.

Whether you decide to use the Oxford comma or not, the most important thing is to be consistent: pick a side and stick to it throughout a document. Because excluding the Oxford comma can affect how people interpret sentences in some situations, we recommend using it throughout a document. However, if you aren’t a fan of the Oxford comma or don’t think that it’s necessary in a particular document, leave it out of all sentences. People have all sorts of reasons for liking or disliking the Oxford comma. In the end, though, the decision about whether or not to use it should depend on which approach is going to make your writing clearer for your reader.

Have any lingering questions about the Oxford comma? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.

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A case for the Oxford comma
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