Oxford Comma

Dr.Monal Desai and Akanksha Tripathi

                                    “Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop”— Lynne Truss

Is Oxford Comma insignificant in academic writing?

You need to understand the exact meaning and usage of Oxford comma to get the answer to this question. So, let’s understand what it is and how we can use it in academic writing.

What is Oxford Comma?

The Oxford, Harvard, Series, or Serial Comma is a much-contested punctuation mark that occurs just before a coordinating conjunction (‘and’ or ‘or’) in a series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses. Oxford University Press’ style guide has emphasized its use in writing since 1905.

What it is

  • about things in serial
  • not mandatory though essential to avoid ambiguity in a sentence
  • style specific(APA/OUP/HP)

What it is not

  • a regular comma
  • used as a pause in the sentence to bring rhythm
  • related to pragmatics—a speech act theory in Linguistics

What is the role of Oxford Comma in my writing?

The Oxford Comma saves you from the doubt of considering the last two items in the series as a pair in place of clubbing them together. It adds clarity and precision to writing. Even though sometimes it seems overtly correct or snubbed as pedantic usage by people.

For example:

1.Without Oxford Comma: I am a fan of cricketers, Dipika Padukone, and Satyajit Ray.

This sentence gives the impression that I am a fan of cricketers whose names are Dipika Padukone and Satyajit Ray.

With Oxford Comma: I am a fan of cricketers, Dipika Padukone, and Satyajit Ray.

Hereby adding Oxford Comma, the ambiguity is removed and, one can interpret that the speaker is a fan of cricketers + Dipika +  Satyajit though Dipika and Satyajit are not cricketers. The use of the comma changes the way the reader/hearer understands the meaning of the sentence. This makes the Oxford Comma crucial.

2. Without Oxford Comma: In his dedication speech, Joaquin Phoenix expressed his gratitude to his parents, Monica Bellucci and Garth Davis.

Although Monica Belluci is co-actor in the film and Garth is the director, the sentence portrays as if they are the parents of  Joaquin Phoenix.

With Oxford Comma: In his dedication speech, Joaquin Phoenix expressed his gratitude to his parents,  Monica Bellucci, and Garth Davis.

In the above sentence, Joaquin Phoenix expresses his gratitude towards his Parents + Monica Belluci + Garth Davis.

With the use of Oxford Comma, the interpretation of the sentences become comprehensible and stop being comical, for those who have the relevant information. Monica and Garth are not his parents but co-star and the director of his movie, Mary Magdalene.

The Oxford Comma: To practice or not to practice?

Though not mandatory, it is style-specific in academic writing.

Though Oxford Comma is seldom used in British English, it is commonly practiced in the American style of writing. APA style, The MLA style, The Oxford  Style Manual, and so on, insist on the use of Oxford Comma.

Where to practice

Essential uses of Oxford Comma:

  • in a certain style of writing, say APA style
  • in legal and business writing
  • where you are not sure what is the acceptable style of writing
  • in formal writing

Where not to practice

If you choose to avoid, be consistent throughout your writing.


Can I use regular and Oxford Comma interchangeably?

No, definitely not.

Regular comma gives a breathing space for the reader in long sentences. It offers understanding time for the listener.

Oxford Comma gives clarity of understanding to a serialized list of items as separate in written communication.