Why You Need to be Using the Oxford Comma

Most of the fun of writing is using your words to tell a story. They course across the page, delighting in the joys of Maureen finally finding her Henry, shuddering as Ingrid uncovers her third dead body of the day, or mourning with Carlos for his lost mother. But I’m not here to talk about words. I’m here to sing the praises of punctuation; specifically, the Oxford comma.

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The Oxford Comma

What Is an Oxford Comma?

Most people I’ve met have no idea what the Oxford comma is, but it’s probably something that you have used in the past. What is it? It’s a punctuation mark so fantastic that a hipster band wrote a song about it. Let’s observe the Oxford comma in its natural habitat.

While Sean was waiting for Kyle to pick up Chinese for dinner, he scraped the paint off the bathroom door frame, alphabetized his books by main character’s first name, and successfully startled the neighbor’s boxer twice.

The last comma in that sentence is an Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma. Its name is always pretentious, and its purpose is always the same: it comes before the conjunction (in this case, “and”) in a list.

It’s completely optional. It’s far more common in non-journalistic prose, and fairly standard in the US, but it’s not often used in the UK, Australia, or South Africa. Without it, however, meanings of sentences can change completely. For example:

Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.

Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.

One comma makes the difference between an awkward road trip with two people and a potentially hilarious road trip with four people. Make sure you’re punctuating the story you want people to read.

NOTE: Not a fan of the Oxford comma? Check out our dissenting opinion, Why the Oxford Comma is Pretentious.

Need more grammar help? After you master the Oxford comma in the practice section below, check out our tutorial Grammar 101. You too can write pop songs about Grammar terms!

PRACTICE

Write for seven minutes using the following sentence prompt as a starter. Then take another seven minutes, add an Oxford comma to the prompt, and write again. See how your story changes.

Prompt: Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his sister and a police officer.

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About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

    Practice part 1:

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie.

    “You really going to do this? We’re family. You’re my sister.”

    “I don’t have a choice. It’s my job.” She held his back, pushed him against the unmarked crown vic, cuffed him.

    “My sister…” he said. “My own sister.” He muttered to himself the whole drive. The thoughts of his childhood, they played underneath the dusty pine trees and tried to rub the sap off each other’s hands with spit, they rode bikes, she always won, they held hands. This was the end. Her holding his hands back to put the cuffs on.

    “How could you do this to me?” he said. “How could you do this… TO ME.” He banged his head on the screen. He yelled until the car was filled with only banging and yelling.

    “You’re blaming this on me?” she shouted over. “Who bought the coke, Jeremy? Who got caught? Don’t you dare blame your shitty life on me.”

    Practice Part 2:

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie and his sister. In the street, the police officer was harassing some coke head. They were downtown.

    “I have an announcement,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this here, but I guess the ghetto is as good a place as any.” He got down on one knee. With one hand he reached into his pocket. With his other, he reached out for Leslie’s hand.

    “Leslie, will you marry me?”

    • http://www.jblearnstowrite.com/ JB Lacaden

      Was thinking exactly the same thing as your part 1 practice. ha ha.

  • Anonymous

    Practice part 1:

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie.

    “You really going to do this? We’re family. You’re my sister.”

    “I don’t have a choice. It’s my job.” She held his back, pushed him against the unmarked crown vic, cuffed him.

    “My sister…” he said. “My own sister.” He muttered to himself the whole drive. The thoughts of his childhood, they played underneath the dusty pine trees and tried to rub the sap off each other’s hands with spit, they rode bikes, she always won, they held hands. This was the end. Her holding his hands back to put the cuffs on.

    “How could you do this to me?” he said. “How could you do this… TO ME.” He banged his head on the screen. He yelled until the car was filled with only banging and yelling.

    “You’re blaming this on me?” she shouted over. “Who bought the coke, Jeremy? Who got caught? Don’t you dare blame your shitty life on me.”

    Practice Part 2:

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie and his sister. In the street, the police officer was harassing some coke head. They were downtown.

    “I have an announcement,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this here, but I guess the ghetto is as good a place as any.” He got down on one knee. With one hand he reached into his pocket. With his other, he reached out for Leslie’s hand.

    “Leslie, will you marry me?”

    • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

      Was thinking exactly the same thing as your part 1 practice. ha ha.

  • Nicole Marett

    Oh Liz. I love you, but I do not love the Oxford Comma. Yep, I said it…

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Haha blasphemy! Oxford Commas are the hipster thing to do.

    • epbure

      Nicole. Did you not see the picture emphasizing the importance of proper comma placement? It’s more than a hipster thing to do. It’s the humane thing to do.

  • Nicole Marett

    Oh Liz. I love you, but I do not love the Oxford Comma. Yep, I said it…

    • http://thewritepractice.com Joe Bunting

      Haha blasphemy! Oxford Commas are the hipster thing to do.

    • Liz

      Nicole. Did you not see the picture emphasizing the importance of proper comma placement? It’s more than a hipster thing to do. It’s the humane thing to do.

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  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    What if Grandpa is delicious?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Impossible. Old people are all chewy and tough.

      • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

        but their bones are brittle.

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          Where do you think toothpicks come from? Trees!?

      • Random Person

        That is why you marinate them for 24 hours first.

        Unless you advocate eating babies instead.

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    What if Grandpa is delicious?

    • http://thewritepractice.com Joe Bunting

      Impossible. Old people are all chewy and tough.

      • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

        but their bones are brittle.

      • Random Person

        That is why you marinate them for 24 hours first.

        Unless you advocate eating babies instead.

  • Lynette Hammond

    It’s funny that this article actually drew my attention to the always present ‘an’ or ‘a’ before the letter H. As I always pronounce the H in herb ( I am in the UK) the ‘an’ always looks wrong to me, even though I know it is correct. Anyone else find this?

  • Lynette Hammond

    It’s funny that this article actually drew my attention to the always present ‘an’ or ‘a’ before the letter H. As I always pronounce the H in herb ( I am in the UK) the ‘an’ always looks wrong to me, even though I know it is correct. Anyone else find this?

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  • http://twitter.com/MLeaJohnson MLJohnson

    I just completed a six week on-line course on this little punctuation mark. Who knew there were so many rules to using a comma? The instructor did not allow the serial comma to be optional during the class, and it was a very hard habit to break. It never dawned on me how not using it could change the meaning of a sentence.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Six weeks on the comma?! My my that would be an interesting class.

  • http://twitter.com/MLeaJohnson MLJohnson

    I just completed a six week on-line course on this little punctuation mark. Who knew there were so many rules to using a comma? The instructor did not allow the serial comma to be optional during the class, and it was a very hard habit to break. It never dawned on me how not using it could change the meaning of a sentence.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Six weeks on the comma?! My my that would be an interesting class.

  • Guest

    I am an advocate of the serial comma, but I not sure that it resolves all ambiguity when dealing with lists.

    For example, in the last list, with “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective,” you say that the comma shows that there are four people in the RV.

    Is this true? Couldn’t “herbalist” also be an appositive, referring to the ex-boyfriend?

    I guess if you really wanted to be clear that it was an appositive, you could use parentheses: “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend (an herbalist), and a pet detective.”

    Can somebody help me out?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good question, guest. Technically, I believe if you were going to use appositives in a list, you would use semi-colons. An alternative way to do it would be to say, “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend, who was an herbalist, and a pet detective.” Which would be clearer, but you should still, technically, use semi-colons or, as you say, parentheses.

    • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

      That’s why commas and writing are so confusing. You don’t know what people mean unless you completely rearrange the sentence, or write a bunch of simple sentences… which are lame.. :P

  • Guest

    I am an advocate of the serial comma, but I not sure that it resolves all ambiguity when dealing with lists.

    For example, in the last list, with “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective,” you say that the comma shows that there are four people in the RV.

    Is this true? Couldn’t “herbalist” also be an appositive, referring to the ex-boyfriend?

    I guess if you really wanted to be clear that it was an appositive, you could use parentheses: “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend (an herbalist), and a pet detective.”

    Can somebody help me out?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good question, guest. Technically, I believe if you were going to use appositives in a list, you would use semi-colons. An alternative way to do it would be to say, “Amanda, her ex-boyfriend, who was an herbalist, and a pet detective.” Which would be clearer, but you should still, technically, use semi-colons or, as you say, parentheses.

    • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

      That’s why commas and writing are so confusing. You don’t know what people mean unless you completely rearrange the sentence, or write a bunch of simple sentences… which are lame.. :P

  • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

    start of thingy:
    Luke turned to face Janna, his sister and a police officer.
    “What do you think about this?” he asked.
    Her thoughtful expression didn’t break when his question broke through the air. He wasn’t sure how to feel about her silence.
    “Well,” she began slowly, as if debating what to tell her brother and what to leave out, “it’s complicated.”
    “Yes….” Luke said, knowing the difficulty of the problem completely.
    “And… I couldn’t tell you for sure…”
    “Oh, you can’t?” Luke said, unable to keep the disappointing out of his voice.
    “Well, what did you expect?” she cried, her eyes accusing, and her mouth in a straight line. “It’s not like I’m an expert or anything.”
    “Yeah, you are,” Luke said.
    Janna snorted. “I’m not falling for any of your tricks. Anyway, there’s not enough evidence here!” she said, pointing at the scattered papers on the round wooden table.
    “I have a video recording–tons, actually,” Luke exclaimed, making a move to go to his laptop.
    Janna held out a hand. “Calm! Luke, why is this so important to you?”
    “Huh?” Luke raised his eyebrows.
    “This boy–he’s important to you, isn’t he?”
    Luke shrugged.
    ***
    I’m past 7 minutes and I didn’t feel like writing more….I don’t really know what’s going on with the boy, anyway. Also this wasnt really much of a comma exercise… Whatever. I also took the creative liberty to change their names. I just wanted the boy to have an L name and the girl to have a J name. ^_^

  • http://dawnstarpony.wordpress.com/ Dawnheart

    start of thingy:
    Luke turned to face Janna, his sister and a police officer.
    “What do you think about this?” he asked.
    Her thoughtful expression didn’t break when his question broke through the air. He wasn’t sure how to feel about her silence.
    “Well,” she began slowly, as if debating what to tell her brother and what to leave out, “it’s complicated.”
    “Yes….” Luke said, knowing the difficulty of the problem completely.
    “And… I couldn’t tell you for sure…”
    “Oh, you can’t?” Luke said, unable to keep the disappointing out of his voice.
    “Well, what did you expect?” she cried, her eyes accusing, and her mouth in a straight line. “It’s not like I’m an expert or anything.”
    “Yeah, you are,” Luke said.
    Janna snorted. “I’m not falling for any of your tricks. Anyway, there’s not enough evidence here!” she said, pointing at the scattered papers on the round wooden table.
    “I have a video recording–tons, actually,” Luke exclaimed, making a move to go to his laptop.
    Janna held out a hand. “Calm! Luke, why is this so important to you?”
    “Huh?” Luke raised his eyebrows.
    “This boy–he’s important to you, isn’t he?”
    Luke shrugged.
    ***
    I’m past 7 minutes and I didn’t feel like writing more….I don’t really know what’s going on with the boy, anyway. Also this wasnt really much of a comma exercise… Whatever. I also took the creative liberty to change their names. I just wanted the boy to have an L name and the girl to have a J name. ^_^

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  • liz

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his
    sister and a police officer.

    “I always knew you’d end up a cop.”
    He took her in, slowly moving his eyes from hers down her uniform,
    pausing at the gun belt and finally back to rest in the
    I-triple-dog-dare -you -to -tell stare he gave her as a kid.

    “Yeah. And I always had you pegged
    for a criminal, but I didn’t think you were stupid enough to get
    involved in something this big.” Leslie shook her head. There was
    enough Marijuana in that airplane hanger to put her little brother
    away for a very long time. She was the first officer on the scene
    but she knew her partner was not far behind.

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his
    sister, and a police officer.

    “Excuse me sir, but my sister and me
    had nothing to do with this. It was all Leslie’s fault. She’s the
    one that took the bike outta that guy’s garage. Besides, the brakes
    didn’t work so good.” Jeremy kicked the tires of the mangled steel
    frame that until it was five-fingered a few hours ago, belonged to
    the rich kid a few blocks over.”

    “But you rode the bike didn’t you?
    And you wrecked it didn’t you? That doesn’t sound like someone who’s
    innocent to me.” The policeman stared down at the six year-old boy
    who had just gotten caught for the first time. He knew he had to
    make a lasting impression on this kid or he’d be arresting him for
    car theft in another six years.

    “Sorry we’re going to have to take
    all you kids in and your parents will have to meet you at the jail.”
    He opened the door to the patrol car and the three joy-riders slid
    into the backseat.

    Jeremy took his sister’s hand. “Don’t
    worry kid; I’ll take all the blame.”
    Leave a message…

  • liz

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his
    sister and a police officer.

    “I always knew you’d end up a cop.”
    He took her in, slowly moving his eyes from hers down her uniform,
    pausing at the gun belt and finally back to rest in the
    I-triple-dog-dare -you -to -tell stare he gave her as a kid.

    “Yeah. And I always had you pegged
    for a criminal, but I didn’t think you were stupid enough to get
    involved in something this big.” Leslie shook her head. There was
    enough Marijuana in that airplane hanger to put her little brother
    away for a very long time. She was the first officer on the scene
    but she knew her partner was not far behind.

    Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his
    sister, and a police officer.

    “Excuse me sir, but my sister and me
    had nothing to do with this. It was all Leslie’s fault. She’s the
    one that took the bike outta that guy’s garage. Besides, the brakes
    didn’t work so good.” Jeremy kicked the tires of the mangled steel
    frame that until it was five-fingered a few hours ago, belonged to
    the rich kid a few blocks over.”

    “But you rode the bike didn’t you?
    And you wrecked it didn’t you? That doesn’t sound like someone who’s
    innocent to me.” The policeman stared down at the six year-old boy
    who had just gotten caught for the first time. He knew he had to
    make a lasting impression on this kid or he’d be arresting him for
    car theft in another six years.

    “Sorry we’re going to have to take
    all you kids in and your parents will have to meet you at the jail.”
    He opened the door to the patrol car and the three joy-riders slid
    into the backseat.

    Jeremy took his sister’s hand. “Don’t
    worry kid; I’ll take all the blame.”
    Leave a message…

  • Chris

    Prompt: Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his sister and a police officer.

    Jeremy didn’t know what to say. Shame was squeezing his lower body, forcing blood to rush to his face.
    “Leslie, please forgive me.”
    “Jeremy, this is the third time you shit on a dog,” said the police officer who was also Jeremy’s sister.
    The handcuffs chuckled as Jeremy turned to look at the dog.
    “Leslie, I’m sorry. Please don’t tell mom. She would be-”
    “Too late, Jeremy. The deed has been done.”

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  • joanna

    is there a comma when writing ‘Thanks, Elizabeth’ or is it ‘Thanks Elizabeth’ ?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Either way works, Joanna!

  • AB

    1. Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his sister and a police
    officer. “Enough!” he shouted. “Just because you’re my sister and a cop, you
    think you can run my life! Well, I’ve had enough. I want to live my life
    without you hanging over me all the time, telling me what to do. And no more
    having your cop buddies do undercover surveillance on me! I’m leaving this town
    and you’d better not try to stop me.” He stooped long enough to grab the camo
    backpack from the cluttered floor and turned toward the door.

    Leslie reached toward him, but he shoved past her.

    “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done for me,
    Sis,” he said a little more calmly but still with and edge to his voice. “You
    took me in after mom died and I don’t know where else I could have gone. But it’s
    time for me to live my own life now.”

    2. Jeremy turned and faced Leslie, his sister, and a police
    officer. Leslie and the cop each held one of his sister’s arms, and her hands
    were cuffed in front of her waist. Tears streaked her face and blood streaked
    her clothing.

    “Les?” he questioned, staring in shock at his friend. “Les,
    what gives? What are you doing to my sister?”

    “Sorry, bro, she is under arrest,” Les replied somewhat
    apologetically. “Attempted murder. I know your brother-in-law was a mean SOB,
    but when you shoot an unarmed man in his bed, the law has to step in, no matter
    how much provocation there was. We’ll get it all sorted out eventually, but we
    have to take her in.” He and the police officer moved toward the door.

  • AB

    By the way, is there any way to stop the spam on this page?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks for mentioning that AB. I think I got them all. I hope they don’t come back, but it you see any, feel free to mark them as spam! Appreciate it!