If you didn’t know about the Oxford comma before the band Vampire Weekend arrived on the music scene in the mid-2000s, you probably did afterward; their third single was centered around the hotly debated piece of punctuation. But have you ever wondered why the Oxford comma is called the Oxford comma in the first place?
The truth, it turns out, is quite a bit more complex than you might expect. Although it’s widely accepted these days that the term “Oxford comma” does, in fact, refer to the fact that this type of comma is well-known for its inclusion in the Oxford University Press house style, the actual history of the term is much hazier.
What’s more, the Oxford comma itself existed long before the Oxford University Press house style came along—even if it didn’t go by that name until recently. Here’s everything you need to know about this divisive piece of punctuation.
The term “Oxford comma” is just another way to refer to a particular type of comma known more broadly as the serial comma. The serial comma is used when listing three or more things in a series; specifically, it’s the comma that appears immediately after the second-to-last item in the list and before the coordinating conjunction that leads into the final item.
For example, in the following sentence:
“Filbert’s spread of tea, jam, and spaghetti marinara was perhaps an unorthodox choice for breakfast, but he enjoyed it all the same.”
The comma between “jam” and the conjunction “and” is a serial comma.
For what it’s worth, Grammarly sums up the definition of the serial comma a bit more succinctly, calling it simply, “the last comma in a list of three or more things”; however, as many other definitions point out, the details do matter. The placement between the penultimate list item and the coordinating conjunction is specific to the serial comma. If there’s no coordinating conjunction, then the comma that appears after that second-to-last item isn’t a serial comma. Note also that serial commas only appear in lists of three or more items; if you’re only listing two items, no commas are used.
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There’s evidence of the serial comma’s use centuries ago; for example, it can be found in the first folio of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was printed in 1623. The stage directions at the top of Act I, scene ii—that is, the scene in which the “rude mechanicals” are introduced—state, “Enter Quince the Carpenter, Snug the Ioyner, Bottome the Weauer, Flute the bellowes-mender, Snout the Tinker, and Starueling the Taylor.” In this sentence, the comma following “Snout the Tinker” is a serial comma.
Of course, this prompts the essential question: If the serial comma has been around for so long, why is it so frequently referred to as the Oxford comma today? The short answer is that the serial comma is used in the Oxford University Press’ house style—but of course, there’s a lot more to it than just that.
The Oxford University Press has long been known for its stringent style rules; indeed, it’s been considered authoritative in this regard for over a century. The rules for the press’ style were first codified in Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford—the style guide Horace Hart assembled for internal use and circulated around the press starting around 1893.
Hart’s Rules was later published as a reference book for the general public in 1904—and although it doesn’t refer specifically to the serial or Oxford comma, it does include several examples of correct comma usage that utilize the serial comma. For instance, the sentence “Peter was a wise, holy, and energetic man” is among the first listed in the section on commas.
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Hart’s Rules is still in print today and is still used by the Oxford University Press as a style resource for its writers and editors—although the press does note that its own Instructions for Authors “take[s] precedence” whenever there are any deviations between these Instructions and the current edition of Hart’s Rules.
The Instructions for Authors, which are available online, begin the section on Oxford University Press’ (OUP) house style with the “Serial or Oxford comma.” This comma is, notes the guide, “a hallmark of OUP house style and must be used in both British and US style.” Its usage is described as follows: “In a list of three or more items, insert a comma before the ‘and’ or ‘or.'”
Meanwhile, the current edition of Hart’s Rules, titled New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, notably includes this tidbit about the serial comma:
“Such a comma is known as a serial comma. For a century it has been a part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently, to the extent that the convention has also come to be called the Oxford comma.”
These days, the OUP is almost inseparable from the comma that bears its name.
But the plot thickens here as well: In Peter H. Sutcliffe’s 1978 book The Oxford University Press: An Informal History, the “invention” of the Oxford comma is attributed not to Hart’s Rules or even to the Oxford University Press itself. Instead, it’s attributed to indexer Frederick Howard Collins.
Collins’ Author’s and Printer’s Dictionary, which was originally published under the title Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press Compositors, and Typists in 1905, was an answer to some issues Collins had with Hart’s Rules: They were, wrote Collins in the preface to the second edition (which was also printed in 1905), “not altogether in accordance with the practice of many of our best printers, and, being intended for compositors and readers only, was not sufficiently complete for authors.”
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The Author’s and Printer’s Dictionary has included a subsection for the entry on “and” since the very beginning which discusses “, and”—that is, the serial comma (Remember, serial commas must appear before a coordinating conjunction, such as “and.”). In this subsection, Collins points to Herbert Spencer as a definitive source on the serial comma, quoting a letter Spencer wrote at length:
“Whether to write ‘black, white, and green,’ with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write ‘black, white and green’—I very positively decide in favour [sic] of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours [sic] black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.”
Spencer’s letter makes what seems to be the first overt argument in favor of the serial comma laid down in any grammatical or style guide up until that point—including Hart’s Rules. It’s perhaps for that reason that Sutcliffe attributes the Author’s and Printer’s Dictionary with the “invention” of this kind of comma, despite evidence of its usage in print several hundred years previously.
For what it’s worth, the Oxford English Dictionary itself currently lists Sutcliffe’s book as the first recorded instance of the phrase “Oxford comma.” The context within the book itself seems to imply that the term was already known at that point—which, as Jasso Lamberg pointed out at his website Comdesres in 2015, is a little weird (Wrote Lamberg, “Not to criticize the OED, but it seems a bit incredible that the first ever usage of the term in print would be so late. Especially as the text seems to refer to the term as something commonly known.”)—but, alas, that’s where the written trail of the phrase itself seems to go cold.
Regardless of how the Oxford comma got its name, there’s one other key element to the story: The debate over whether or not the Oxford or serial comma should be used in the first place.
Although many other style guides beyond the Oxford University Press’ house style, such as Chicago Style and APA Style, stipulate the use of the Oxford comma, others, such as the AP Style guide used in journalism and reporting, do not. Additionally, many grammarians feel quite strongly about whether or not the Oxford comma is indeed correct—and are willing to defend that position on public forums quite fiercely. So: What gives?
Interestingly, the arguments both for and against the use of the Oxford comma usually revolve around ambiguity. Those who argue for the use of the serial comma note that omitting it can often create ambiguity in a sentence—and frequent ambiguity that can render the sentence absurd at that.
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A frequently cited example involves a (probably apocryphal) book dedication, which, when written without an Oxford comma, reads, “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”—the implication being that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God. However, placing an Oxford comma after “Ayn Rand” and before the conjunction “and” resolves the ambiguity: When written as such, it reads, “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God,” making it much clearer that the parents, Ayn Rand, and God are all separate entities.
However, as Gus Lubin pointed out at Business Insider in 2013, a minor change to the book dedication example shows how the Oxford comma can create ambiguity as well. If instead of “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God,” the dedication reads “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God,” it’s unclear whether the mother and Ayn Rand are separate entities, or whether Ayn Rand is an appositive referring to the mother—that is, that the mother is Ayn Rand. In this case, the ambiguity is resolved with the removal of the Oxford comma: “To my mother, Ayn Rand and God.”
These days, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is as much about personal preference as it is about whether you’re writing for a particular audience. Love it or hate it, you’ll always have to think about it. Choose wisely—and if you get stuck on whether or not to use it, you can always hum this song to help yourself out.