John Larrysson Column: The Oxford Comma

You may have seen some long detailed sets of comma rules and despaired of ever learning and understanding them all. I will give you some short quick guidelines. As we will see native speakers sometimes disagree on correct comma use, so don't try to please everyone. Just make sure that what you write is not confusing. The Oxford Comma is one use of the comma that many people disagree on.

A comma (,) is a break between parts of a sentence. Commas should be used to make the meaning of sentences clear by separating words and phrases.

There are three main times when you need to use a comma:

- in lists

- to separate extra parts of a sentence

- in quotations

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The Oxford Comma is used in lists. We all have been taught to put a comma between the different things in a list.

For breakfast I had a big bowl of congee, with chicken's feet, tofu and thousand year egg.

(Hong Kong English Words like congee and thousand year egg can be found in A Dictionary of Hong Kong English, Words from the Fragrant Harbour.)

That is simple enough, but native speakers disagree about putting a comma in front of the and. Some English teachers say it is proper and some say it is an error. So what should you do? Read on... A comma before the word and (also or) is called a serial comma or the Oxford Comma, because Oxford University Press uses a comma before and.

An Oxford Comma can make the meaning of a sentence clear when the things in a list are not single words:

The colours of the dragon boats in this year's race are red and black, green and yellow, and blue and white.

Using the Oxford comma shows us that we have three dragon boats, each with two colours. Without that comma the meaning would be unclear.

There might be two dragon boats, the second being a green, yellow, blue and white dragon boat.

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Look at these two sentences:

Look at the apples, Mary, and Jane.

Look at the apples, Mary and Jane.

In the first sentence you are asked to look at some apples, then at two ladies named Mary and Jane. In the second sentence the meaning is unclear. You may think you were being asked to look at two apples strangely named Mary and Jane.

So my advice on the Oxford comma is to use it if you need it to make your meaning clear and ignore those who say you made a mistake. If you don't need a comma before and it is not necessary and can be ignored.

Next week I will cover commas used to separate extra parts of a sentence and the argument over the comma splice.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.