The Oxford Comma: What It Is and Why It Matters


The Oxford Comma: What It Is and Why It Matters (Background for Adults)

At first glance, the Oxford Comma may seem like a trivial punctuation mark. However, its usage has sparked debates among grammar enthusiasts and even legal experts. In this article, we’ll delve into what the Oxford Comma is, its history, and why it matters.

What Is the Oxford Comma?

Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford Comma is the final comma used in a list of three or more items. For example, in the sentence “I need to buy apples, oranges, and bananas,” the Oxford Comma is the comma after the word “oranges.” Without the Oxford Comma, the sentence would read, “I need to buy apples, oranges and bananas.”

The Usage of the Oxford Comma

While the Oxford Comma is widely used in American English, it is not as common in British English. In fact, the style guide of Oxford University Press, after which the comma is named, advises against using the Oxford Comma unless it is necessary for clarity.

Despite the lack of consensus on its usage, the Oxford Comma has a significant impact on the meaning of a sentence. Consider the following example: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Without the Oxford Comma, the sentence suggests that JFK and Stalin are the strippers. However, with the Oxford Comma, the sentence makes it clear that the strippers, JFK, and Stalin are separate entities.

The Legal Implications of the Oxford Comma

Believe it or not, the Oxford Comma has even played a role in legal cases. In a 2017 lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy, drivers argued that they were entitled to overtime pay because of a lack of clarity in their contract. The relevant section of the contract stated that overtime pay would not apply to “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The lack of an Oxford Comma after “packing for shipment” left room for interpretation as to whether packing was a separate activity exempt from overtime pay or whether it applied to both packing and distributing. Ultimately, the court ruled in favour of the drivers, citing the lack of clarity caused by the missing Oxford Comma.

Why the Oxford Comma Matters

The Oxford Comma is not just a matter of personal preference or style. Its usage can have a significant impact on the meaning of a sentence and even legal agreements. By including the Oxford Comma, writers can ensure clarity and avoid ambiguity.

In Conclusion

The Oxford Comma may seem like a small detail, but its impact on language and communication is significant. Whether you choose to use it or not, understanding its purpose and potential consequences is essential.

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