Tag: communication

How To Use The Oxford Comma To Eliminate Ambiguity

By Lauren Carter

Have you ever been reading a sentence that listed three or more items, but you stumbled on it because it was unclear where one item ended and the next one started? Chances are the writer didn’t use an Oxford comma. No idea what that is? Well, you’ll know all about it soon!

What is the Oxford comma?

If you’re not a language nerd like I am, you may have never heard of the Oxford comma. A comma is a comma, right? Well, yes . . . but also no. There are actually four types of commas in English: listing commas, joining commas, gapping commas, and bracketing commas. In this post we’re focusing on listing commas, so don’t worry about the others for now.

We use listing commas to separate items in a list. There are two ways to do this in English โ€” with an Oxford comma and without one. An Oxford comma is a comma that we place after the second last item in a list.

Here’s an example:

  • I like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.
  • I like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.

The first example uses an Oxford comma, and the second one doesn’t. Both are completely valid in English depending on the style guide you’re following and where you live in the world, but I think Oxford commas are the way to go when writing in plain English.

When can I use the Oxford comma?

You can use the Oxford comma all the time when writing lists! I’m a big fan of it, so I make sure I use it whenever I’m listing three or more things in my writing. If you’re not a fan for whatever reason, I’d still recommend using it when it’s unclear where the boundaries are between the last two listed items (more on this below).

Why should I use the Oxford comma in plain English?

The Oxford comma is awesome because it helps you eliminate any ambiguity in your sentences. This makes your communication clearer, which is one of the goals in plain English.

Here are some examples without the Oxford comma to illustrate this ambiguity:

  • I love my friends, Freddie Mercury and Taylor Swift.
  • The press interviewed his wife, the singer of The Interrupters and the winner of X Factor.
  • The smoothie flavours are pineapple and orange, strawberry and mango and blueberry.

So, am I friends with Freddie Mercury and Taylor Swift? Is his wife the singer of The Interrupters and also the winner of X Factor? Can I order a smoothie with strawberry and mango or with mango and blueberry? Using an Oxford comma in these situations clears up any ambiguity. Here are those examples again but with Oxford commas:

  • I love my friends, Freddie Mercury, and Taylor Swift.
  • The press interviewed his wife, the singer of The Interrupters, and the winner of X Factor.
  • The smoothie flavours are pineapple and orange, strawberry and mango, and blueberry.

How can I use the Oxford comma more?

Using Oxford commas in your writing is super easy. All you need to do is:

  1. Identify lists when writing
  2. Work out each part of the list
  3. Add a comma between the last two items

This is probably the easiest change you can make when communicating in Plain English. I assume you’re already a competent writer who uses lists in their everyday communication, so you’re already 90% there! All you need to remember is to add a comma between the last two items.

What if I don’t want to use the Oxford comma?

But what if you don’t want to use the Oxford comma? Cool, no stress. I’m not the language police! ๐Ÿ˜Š You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to.

If your sentence isn’t ambiguous, then you’re probably fine to leave it as it is without an Oxford comma. But if there is some ambiguity, then you could consider changing the sentence structure or changing the order of the list items instead. Here are some examples to help you:

  • Original: I love my friends, Freddie Mercury and Taylor Swift.
  • Revised: I love Taylor Swift, Freddie Mercury and my friends.
  • Original: The press interviewed his wife, the singer of The Interrupters and the winner of X Factor.
  • Revised: The press interviewed his wife, and they also interviewed the singer of The Interrupters and the winner of X Factor.
  • Revised: The press interviewed three people: his wife, the singer of The Interrupters and the winner of X Factor.
  • Original: The smoothie flavours are pineapple and orange, strawberry and mango and blueberry.
  • Revised: The smoothie flavours are pineapple and orange, blueberry and also strawberry and mango.

See all posts ยป