I’ve visited France, Germany and Spain this year.
I’ve visited France, Germany, and Spain this year.
You probably don’t see any difference between the above pair of sentences. But what about this pair:
On Twitter I’m following my friends, Stephen Fry, and Miley Cyrus.
On Twitter I’m following my friends, Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus.
The second sentence is quite ambiguous. Do I mean that I follow my friends on Twitter, in addition to the celebrities Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus? Or do I mean to say that Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus are my friends, and I follow them on Twitter? The latter would probably make for some interesting dinner-party conversations, but that’s probably not what I meant, is it?
Still, just to be sure my meaning is clear, I can use the first sentence, with the comma between Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus. A comma like this, before the last item in a list of three or more items, is known as the Oxford comma, as it’s an element of the house style of Oxford University Press. There’s quite a bit of debate about whether or not to use the Oxford comma, and it has its strong supporters as well as determined detractors. Some style guides recommend its use, some suggest avoiding it, and others don’t mention it at all.
Why use it? As we see above, it can resolve ambiguity in cases where the first item in a list might seem like it’s referring to the second and third items. More generally, it can avoid ambiguity when two words in a list could be joined together as one item, or could be separate items. For example:
Breakfast options are: pancakes, cereal, bacon and eggs.
Are the bacon and eggs separate or do they come together? If they’re separate items, the Oxford comma will make that clear:
Breakfast options are: pancakes, cereal, bacon, and eggs.
If they come together, the Oxford comma is less helpful, but using it and placing bacon and eggs before the end of the list makes it clear:
Breakfast options are: pancakes, bacon and eggs, and cereal.
In a more general sense, using the Oxford comma replicates the patterns of spoken English. Generally when we see a comma while we read, we mentally pause as we would when speaking. So using the Oxford comma in writing means that we pause just as we would when reciting every item in a list.
Yet, it’s important to be aware that the Oxford comma isn’t all powerful, and there are some cases in which sentences will be ambiguous with or without it. For example:
Today I met my friend, a writer and a teacher.
There are three possible meanings here:
- Today I met my friend, who is both a writer and a teacher.
- Today I met my friend, who is a writer, and I also met a teacher.
- Today I met my friend, I met a writer, and I met a teacher: three different individuals.
Let’s imagine that the third option is what I meant. Let’s pull out our Oxford comma and clear things up:
Today I met my friend, a writer, and a teacher.
Things are a littler clearer now, but that sentence might still be interpreted as no.2 above. In this case, then, the Oxford comma isn’t enough to make our exact meaning clear. The best option is to move my friend to the end of sentence:
Today I met a writer, a teacher, and my friend.
The Oxford comma isn’t perfect then, but I’m still a fan of it. I like any punctuation that allows us to be more precise in our meaning. You could live your whole life without using the Oxford comma, and still be generally understood. But isn’t it great to have the option to make what you mean perfectly clear? Being generally understood is fine, but why not strive for more?
That’s why punctuation is so important. It fine tunes the meaning of what we want to say and removes (most) ambiguity. It’s a shame that most education systems around the world don’t seem to pay too much attention to this area of language, as written communication is always going to be an important part of people’s lives, and getting your exact point across is necessary. And while the Oxford comma might not be so important to you, other punctuation marks like the apostrophe might be more relevant to your writing, and misusing it could change your meaning in a crucial way. But I won’t get started on apostrophes now: that’s for another day!