Q&A: The Oxford/Harvard/Serial comma explained

Each week, we chat about the quirks, oddities and anomalies of the English language. Like whether we needed a comma after the word “oddities” in that last sentence…

Q: Hi AWC, one of our readers recently wrote to us to say that her mother always said that you should never use a comma next to ‘and’ as they both perform the same function. But she has seen plenty of exceptions – I’m assuming this is the Oxford comma?
A: That’s right. It’s also known as the “Harvard comma” or “serial comma”.

Q: Why “Oxford” or “Harvard”? Is it a particularly intelligent comma? Did its father go to one of those schools? Was there some kind of punctuation scholarship on offer? Is there a “Cambridge comma”? And which would win in a boat race?
A: We’ll answer the first question, but ignore the rest.

Q: That’s fair.
A: It’s named the Oxford/Harvard comma because the editors and printers at those respective university presses traditionally used it. It’s generally referred to as the serial comma in the US though.

Q: Because that country has a lot of serial killers?
A: No, it's probably to do with its use – in a list or series of items.

Q: Yeah, that’s probably more logical. So what does it do exactly?
A: In a list of three or more items, it’s the comma that comes before the conjunction that precedes the final item. For example: “Lions, tigers, and bears.”

Q: Oh my.
A: Of course, many argue that the conjunction – “and” – is doing that job already.

Q: Yes, well, “lions, tigers and bears” does seem identical to the first one. In fact, if I were their parents, I’d definitely dress them in matching clothing and I’m sure the world would think it was equally adorable.
A: Indeed. However, it’s not always that clear-cut.

Q: Do go on.
A: Well, consider this statement: “My biggest influences in life are my parents, Tom Cruise and Serena Williams.”

Q: Ah. Okay, so without that final comma, we are dealing with the love child of Tom and Serena.
A: Yes we are. A tennis-playing, couch-jumping love child. However, when you use the Oxford comma, it removes the ambiguity. So here, writing “My biggest influences are my parents, Tom Cruise, and Serena Williams” clearly separates each item distinctly.

Q: I’m still reeling from Tom Cruise being someone’s biggest influence.
A: Of course, many claim that rewording the sentence (“My biggest influences are Tom Cruise, Serena Williams and my parents”) works just as well. And even the Oxford comma can still cause confusion. Consider: “I have invited Johnny, my dance instructor, and my mum.” So, is it three invites or two? Is Johnny the dance instructor?

Q: Well, he was in Dirty Dancing…
A: But for the most part, the Oxford comma is mostly used to help clear things up. E.g. “ice-cream flavours – chocolate, vanilla, raspberry and lime.”

Q: Wow, that sounds delicious! I’ll have the raspberry and lime flavoured ice-cream please!
A: Nope, they’re separate flavours – raspberry ice-cream AND lime ice-cream.

Q: Noooo. I was looking forward to that. Here, take my spoon back.
A: Where did you get a spoon? Never mind. So, an Oxford comma would have made that clearer. It’s also handy for keeping things in their place, as in “bacon and eggs, macaroni and cheese, and crackers.”

Q: So there are certainly pros and cons for using it.
A: Yep. The US favours its consistent use on everything. Meanwhile, in Britain and here in Australia we’re more selective, with Australian Government style only prescribing its use if it’s going to cause ambiguity without.

Q: And if I want to read more about this and other comma crimes?
A: Read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. That’s not an Oxford/Harvard/serial comma in the title, but the gun-toting panda on the cover demonstrates the importance of commas in punctuation! And also check out this funny take on it starring JFK and Stalin!


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