Insert the Oxford Comma

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Image credit: 2.bp.blogspot.com

In a list of 3 or more items with a single conjunction or disjunction, “always insert the serial comma. Some writers insist on omitting the last comma, before the ‘and’ [or ‘or’]. Do not omit the last comma—doing so can cause misinterpretation.” (Judge Mark P. Painter, ’30 Suggestions to Improve Readability, or How to Write for Judges, Not Like Judges’, page 19, www.judgepainter.org/publications.)

That serial comma is also known as the Oxford comma. Deploy it to good use.

Write: affidavits, briefs, and pleadings

Not: affidavits, briefs and pleadings

Write: arbitrators, attorneys, mediators, and judges

Not: arbitrators, attorneys, mediators and judges

Write: civil procedure, criminal law, real estate, or intellectual property

Not: civil procedure, criminal law, real estate or intellectual property

Without the Oxford comma, the last 2 items in any of the lists seem to have an incestuous relationship. They appear separated from the earlier items in the list. They seem to have a special affinity not shared with the rest. Leaving out the Oxford comma “creates strange bedfellows at the end of sentences.” (see endnote below)

The Oxford comma clarifies meaning especially when the listed items are not single words.

The Write House teaches academic writing, brief writing, business and corporate writing, judicial writing, learned writing, legislative drafting, litigation documents, and transactional drafting.

This sentence might be confusing without the Oxford comma.

Some authorities and style guides, including the New York Times, oppose the Oxford comma. Yet others suggest discriminatory use, saying it should only be used to resolve ambiguity. Don’t mind either camp. The Oxford University Press and the US Government Printing Office use the Oxford comma.

Novelist Harold Livingston (author of The Coasts of the Earth, The Detroiters, and Ride a Tiger) inserts the Oxford comma:

. . . oldest, closest, and best friend . . .(Harold Livingston, Ride a Tiger, London, Futura, 1987, 460.)

Francine Rivers, the award-winning Christian-fiction writer, also uses the Oxford comma:

Whether they were sitting, standing, or walking, Theophilus taught him Scripture . . . (Francine Rivers, As Sure As the Dawn, Carol Stream, Illinois, Tyndale, 1995, 337.)

The Oxford comma should be mandatory in legal writing. Bryan Garner, the legal-writing pope and editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, endorses the Oxford comma, saying, “Use a comma to separate words or phrases grouped in a series of three or more, and include a comma before the conjunction.” (Bryan Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, 2nd edition, 2002, 3.) I would add, “or disjunction”—the Oxford comma also applies when the last item in a list is preceded by or rather than and. So write the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal, or the Supreme Court; not the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court.

The Oxford comma applies even when the listed items are not nouns. The following examples are from The Elements of Style (W Strunk Jr and E B White, The Elements of Style, 3.):

Write: honest, energetic, but headstrong
Not: honest, energetic but headstrong

Write: He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
Not: He opened the letter, read it and made a note of its contents.

With several conjunctions or disjunctions, you usually need no commas.

Write: Anne and Chinua and Eno
Not: Anne, and Chinua, and Eno

Write: Joshua or Maxwell or Sam
Not: Joshua, or Maxwell, or Sam

The Pope and Mother Teresa

If you’re still sceptical about the Oxford comma, consider People v Walsh {2008 WL 724724 (NY Criminal Court Jan 3, 2008)}. In that case, the judge upheld the Oxford comma, saying obiter, “For example, in an author’s dedication ‘to my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa’, the absence of a comma between ‘Pope’ and ‘and’ indicates that the author’s parents are the Pope and Mother Teresa . . . ”—a blasphemous dedication! So, unless the author is of virgin birth, the correct dedication would read: To my parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa—the work is dedicated to 4 people: the author’s two parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa.

The ampersand and business-name exceptions to the Oxford comma rule

When you use the symbol & for and instead of spelling out the conjunction, then you should not insert the Oxford comma. The logogram & is called an ampersand.

Write: Enemuo, Kola & Ibrahim

Not: Enemuo, Kola, & Ibrahim

Write: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

Not: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz

But you should not ordinarily use ampersands in your writing. Never insert ampersands in legislative or transactional drafting. Reserve them for unavoidable use, as in the names of firms which already spell their name with an ampersand.

Many law firms use no commas in their name. Don’t force a comma into a firm name. Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun do not insert commas in their firm name. So:

Write: Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun

Not: Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor, & Segun

And not: Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor & Segun

Omit the Oxford comma in business names:

Write: Eneli, Kuku and Obiora

Not: Eneli, Kuku, and Obiora

Endnote
Alexandra Petri, ‘Save the Oxford comma! A Grammar Nazi’s plea’, ComPost, www.washingtonpost.com, 30 June 2011 (last accessed 13 November 2013).

5 thoughts on “Insert the Oxford Comma

  1. Abimbola O Akisanya

    Good day to you
    I sincerely appreciate the added knowledge, bestowed on my humble self.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. 'Niyi Ojo

    This is such welcome knowledge. We take so much for granted in our everyday writings without realising the unintended effects.
    Thank you for sharing these.

    Reply
    • Writehouseng Post author

      You’re welcome, Shelley. Please share this article (and other contents you found useful) with your colleagues as well. Thank you.

      Reply

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