The Great Oxford Comma Debate: Should You Use It or Not?

Few, if any, writing styles have been as controversial as the Oxford comma. Also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, this debate isn’t as much about rules for writing as it is about style. Even the most-used stylebooks in the world do not agree on its usage. Neither style is correct or incorrect, so the debate continues. 

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Oxford comma is “used to separate the second-to-last item in a list from a final item introduced by the conjunction ‘and’ or ‘or.” For example, “I love my parents, my dog, and my cat,” uses the Oxford comma, while “I love my parents, my dog and my cat” does not. 

Woman with long black hair sitting at table working on laptop, looking confused with hands up in the air in a shrugging motion.


A confusing history  

The history of the Oxford comma can be as contentious as the debate over using it. Here’s what we know: 

  • Aldus Mantius (aka Aldo Manuzio) was a 15th century Italian who introduced the comma as we know it, to separate things listed in a sentence. The word “comma” comes from the Greek word “koptein,” meaning “to cut off.” 
  • Horace Hart is often referred to as the originator of the Oxford comma. Hart was a printer at Oxford University Press (OUP) from 1893 to 1915. In 1905, he wrote Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers as a style guide for OUP employees. However, he did not refer to it as the “Oxford comma.” 
  • Peter Sutcliffe is allegedly the first to call this the “Oxford comma” in his 1978 book about the OUP’s history. 
  • In an interesting twist, Sutcliffe credits F. Howard Collins for introducing the Oxford comma. Collins wrote Author & Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Composition, and Typists in 1912, 66 years before Sutcliff’s book was published. 
  • In another twist, Collins fully quotes a letter from Herbert Spencer, a Victorian and friend of Charles Darwin. The letter justified using the serial comma to avoid ambiguity.

"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."

Why the debate? 

So, why the fuss over such a little piece of punctuation? 

Fans of the Oxford comma believe that using it helps minimize confusion and helps the reader better understand the author’s intent. Authors of in-depth research articles are typically fanatic proponents of using it in their complex writing. The opposition argues that it makes writing sound pretentious and old-fashioned, making for a cluttered appearance. Writers of news and short articles often avoid it in order to keep the reader moving. 

Let’s look at some examples to better understand the argument. We’ll use the sentence from earlier. 

I love my parents, my dog, and my cat. 

This is a clear sentence that indicates the writer loves three things: parents, dog, and cat. 


I love my parents, my dog and my cat. 

This could be seen as your parents are your dog and your cat.  


Some say that neither are correct sentences, but a simple rephrasing fixes the problem, changing it to: 

I love my dog, my cat and my parents. 


These examples may seem silly at first, as we know our parents are not a dog and cat (unless you’re from the Island of Dr. Moreau, then you have bigger issues than commas to deal with). It’s important to remember that legal cases have sometimes been judged based on punctuation in a document. As recently as 2017, a $5 million lawsuit hinged on the placement (or lack thereof) of a comma. 

"There could hardly be a better illustration of where a misunderstanding could have been avoided by including an Oxford comma than in the lawsuit brought by the Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers."

 The Maine lawsuit 

In a nutshell, the $10 million lawsuit (judgment was for $5 million) involved an overtime dispute between Oakhurst Dairy company and its drivers. Oakhurst settled for $5 million. The crux of the judgment was the interpretation of a sentence in Maine’s overtime law — a sentence that did not use the Oxford comma. Judge David Barron said that the law’s punctuation was not clear, as “packing for shipping or distribution” could be seen as one activity or two separate activities.  

This Maine law has since been rewritten but with an abundance of semi-colons. Some say this is no less confusing than the previous version. 

Vintage scales.

The experts weigh in 

Even among experts on the written word, there is debate. Style guides that are used by professionals and students can’t agree on the Oxford Comma. 

Supporters include OUP, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMA), the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA). Most researchers, academic writers, and other reputable publications use it for clearer writing and easier understanding. 

Opposers such as the Associated Press (AP), Canadian Press (CP), and The New York Times agree that the Oxford comma should only be used when a sentence could be misinterpreted without it. Many magazine publishers argue that it takes up valuable page space, and many journalists do not use it. Ironically, the public relations department at the University of Oxford does not tend to use the Oxford comma. 

My opinion 

Except for times when I was mandated to use the AP style guide or had an editor who hated it, I have always used the Oxford comma. I believe it better clarifies what I’m writing. I understand that it can take up more space in publications, but I also know that I cannot predict when someone will misread my writing that I think is clear. If I could read the minds of others, I’d be traveling the world with my riches. The fact that punctuation has affected court cases clinches it for me. 

Also, while some style guides recommend only using it when necessary, I think that adds inconsistency to one’s writing. Sure, you don’t need to use only one or the other in all your writing, but it looks like a mistake if you aren’t consistent throughout one article, blog, book, or white paper.  

Two hands raised in the air. One has "Yes" written on it, the other has "No" written on it.

It comes down to experiences 

“If you’ve always used the serial comma — ‘red, white, and blue’ — its absence can look slipshod and lazy. If you were taught the more streamlined AP style — “red, white and blue’ — the extra comma may seem fussy and pretentious,” says Jan Freeman, writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

Using the Oxford comma often comes down to how you were taught punctuation. Depending on your age and school location, it may have been the only comma style you were taught. Perhaps you got red marks on your papers every time you didn’t use it, and you now practically break into hives if you don’t use it. On the other hand, you may have had an editor who figuratively eviscerated you for using it once, and even thinking about using the Oxford comma makes you break into a cold sweat.  

In today’s often bizarre political climate, some even believe it’s part of class warfare, that “If you’re an elitist, you probably like it. If you’re a more down-to-earth, patriotic American, not so much.” (“The Oxford Comma: A Study in Class Warfare.”)

So, should you use it or not? That may be up to your editor or style guide, if you are mandated to follow one. Otherwise, if you believe it helps you and your reader avoid confusion, use it. If you think it adds clutter and are happy rephrasing potentially problematic sentences, don’t use it. Whichever style you choose, be consistent. 


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Kelly Creighton. “The Oxford Comma: Use it or Ditch it?” 7/13/17. Accessed 5/30/23.

“What Is the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma)? Grammarly Blog. 4/19/23. Accessed 5/30/23. 

“Where Did the Oxford Comma Come From, and Why Is It So Important?” Scribendi. Accessed 5/30/23. 

Anne Converse Willkomm. “Why You Should Care About the Oxford Comma.” Drexel University Graduate College. 5/26/17. Accessed 5/30/23. 

Valerie F. “The Oxford Comma: A Study in Class Warfare.” Accessed 5/30/23. 

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