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August 15, 2012

Former editor’s writing primer has converted me to the Oxford comma

By Dominic Ponsford1

Former local newspaper editor Frank Rawlins has written a handy primer which will be useful to all aspiring reporters and writers.

L is for Literature is available via Amazon, with more details available at www.frankrawlins.co.uk.

Here is his section on the ‘Oxford comma’ – which I have to say has converted me from a sceptic to a believer.

If you haven’t heard of it, the ‘Oxford comma’ is the extra comma that the vast  majority of people, and thus writers, don’t bother with. It is the comma that scholars and, some say, pedants like to use before the word ‘and’ in any list of more than two items: I ate fish, chips, mushy peas, and bread. Most people prefer: I ate fish, chips, mushy peas and bread.

Well … I am no scholar, although I confess readily to professional pedantry, but the OXFORD COMMA IS CORRECT USAGE. So there!

The anti-Oxford movement comes unstuck when a list can be ambiguous, as in:

The train will stop at Bicester, then Haddenham and Thame.

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That is not three stations; Haddenham and Thame is the name of the station  after Bicester.

It gets even worse with:

The train will stop at Bicester, Haddenham and Thame and Princes Risborough.

Anyone unfamiliar with the area and its railway won’t know (UNLESS YOU USE THE OXFORD COMMA) whether there are four stations, or three with one called Haddenham and Thame, or three with one called Thame and Princes Risborough.

The correct form is:

The train will stop at Bicester, Haddenham and Thame, and Princes Risborough.

So, generally speaking, it is best to use a final comma in any list longer than two items. It is equally important to use the final comma in a list of actions. Look how ridiculous this is:

For exercise Mark liked to lift weights, swim and skate at Oxford Ice Rink.

Pardon? Has the ice melted?

This is better:

For exercise Mark liked to lift weights, swim, and skate at Oxford Ice Rink.


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