The Oxford Comma

Consider the following sentence:

We fed the puppies, Bobbles, and Fluffy.

In English, for lists of more than three items, the items are separated by commas, that is, all except for the last item, which must be separated by the word “and.” The “and” signals that this is the end of the list. However, is it also necessary to use a comma in this case?

We fed the puppies, Bobbles and Fluffy.

In British English and much English taught in Asian countries, it is not necessary. The  “and” takes the job of the separator, so a comma is seen as redundant.

I used to write this way as well. However, not using the Oxford comma can lead to situations in which the text is ambiguous. This is because a comma has more than one purpose in English. In addition to separating a list, a comma can separate two parts of a sentence.

So the above sentence could be interpreted to mean that we fed two puppies, one named Bobbles, and one named Fluffy, when we really meant that we fed the puppies, and then we fed two more pets, one pet named Bobbles and one pet named Fluffy, who are different from the puppies.

A recent court case that hinged on the Oxford comma was recently decided in the favor of delivery drivers who wanted overtime pay. The regulations were written in a similar way to the above. The regulation that stated what is not covered by overtime is as follows:

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

They meant that both packing for shipment and distribution are not covered by overtime pay. However, this sentence could be read as packing for shipment and packing for distribution are not covered by overtime pay. Hence, distribution must be covered.

The court ruled that the comma was needed, and therefore overtime should be paid to the drivers who distributed the goods.

It is hence best to use the Oxford comma, especially in academic writing, where the precise interpretation of text is essential. It is also recommended even when writing in British English.

I notice you don't use an oxford comma. I too like to live dangerously.

 

Lists, Damned Lists, and How to Punctuate Them

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain (among others)14784640622_610f5b567e_o

Lists, especially enumerated lists, are a great way to ensure your ideas are properly emphasized. However, it can be hard to remember how to format these lists correctly. A part of the problem is that there are many forms these lists can take.

Hence, in this post, I run through these various list formats (according to the Chicago Manual of Style) in order from least to most emphasis on the list items.

Simple list of items in a sentence:

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

There is a comma after each item, and an “and” before the final item. The first list is introduced by a sentence fragment followed by a comma, and the second is introduced by a complete sentence followed by a colon.

Enumerated list of items in a sentence (a run-in list):

There are 1) lies, 2) damned lies, and 3) statistics.

There are three kinds of lies: 1) lies, 2) damned lies, and 3) statistics.

Note that despite the addition of the numbers, the punctuation remains the same.

Enumerated list of items set into the text:

There are:

  1. lies;
  2. damned lies;
  3. statistics.

There are three kinds of lies:

  1. Lies
  2. Damned lies
  3. Statistics

In the first list, where the list is not introduced by a complete sentence, the items are punctuated by semicolons or a period (for the final item). This style is not recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style. The preferred style is to introduce the list with a complete sentence followed by a semi-colon, as in the second example. In this style, the items are capitalized and there is no punctuation, not even for the final item.

Enumerated list of complete sentence items set into the text:

There are three kinds of lies:

  1. There are lies, which are bad.
  2. There are damned lies, which are worse.
  3. There are statistics, which are completely without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

In this style, the list is introduced by a complete sentence followed by a colon, and each list items is capitalized and punctuated as a complete sentence.

To sum up, you have several choices when writing a list of items. All are correct, and your choice of format will depend on 1) the complexity of each item and 2) the amount of emphasis you wish to place on the items in the list.

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

There are 1) lies, 2) damned lies, and 3) statistics.

There are:

  1. lies;
  2. damned lies;
  3. statistics.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

There are three kinds of lies: 1) lies, 2) damned lies, and 3) statistics.

There are three kinds of lies:

  1. Lies
  2. Damned lies
  3. Statistics

There are three kinds of lies:

  1. There are lies, which are bad.
  2. There are damned lies, which are worse.
  3. There are statistics, which are completely without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.