Where Did the Oxford Comma Come From?
The Oxford comma gets its name from being used by the Oxford University Press, but its exact origins are unclear. It’s doubtful the use of an Oxford comma (also called a serial comma) originated at the University of Oxford. If it did, there doesn’t seem to be any proof to back it up.
TIP: An Oxford comma or serial comma is the comma before “and” in a list. See: These 3 sentences show why you should always use the Oxford comma.
A video from Oxford Dictionaries discussing the Oxford comma.
The History of the Oxford Comma
The use of the Oxford comma pre-dates any mention of rules about its use by centuries. Some of the first mentions of a rule based on the Oxford comma’s use are from “Authors’ & Printers’ Dictionary” by F. Howard Collins in 1912 and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. 1918, but we can find instances of its use much earlier.
The mystery of the comma’s origins is further complicated by the fact that Oxford University has been teaching students since at 1096, far before any examples of the commas use exist.
Here is a rough translation of one of the first books ever printed The recuyell of the historyes of Troy. It is an old text translated and printed by William Caxton in 1473 or 1474. The annotations from 1894 use an Oxford comma, but the text itself doesn’t appear to.
FACT: The Oxford Comma, serial comma, and Harvard comma are all names for the same thing.
What is an Oxford Comma Used For?
An Oxford comma is an optional comma used before a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “or” at the end of a list. It’s used to separate the final item in a list (especially when a list item consists of multiple words), avoid disambiguation, and to clarify the meaning of a sentence.
A video from TedEd discussing the Oxford comma.
Should I Use the Oxford Comma?
The Oxford comma is optional, and its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years. The AP style guide says never to use it while many other guides say always to use it. In other words, it’s optional for unless your university or job follows a style guide that favors it.
One could use the serial comma just when needed for clarity, but this could create a confusing writing style. Thus, strong arguments can be made for using the Oxford comma all the time. Its history may not be as clear and vibrant as Oxford, but it’s still pretty smart.
A video discussing grammar gripes and the Oxford comma.
Examples of Why the Oxford Comma is Important
Here are some variations of funny grammatical examples of why the Oxford comma is important:
Example 1: My favorite things are aliens, my mom and my dad. | My favorite things are aliens, my mom, and my dad.
Without the comma, the sentence implies your favorite thing is aliens and that your mother and father are aliens.
Example 2: I love eating, children and dogs. | I love eating, children, and dogs.
Without the comma, the sentence implies that you enjoy eating both children and dogs.