How the Oxford Comma Improves Your Writing

I’m here to tell you two things:

  1. Unless you are following a style guide that requires it—Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), or American Medical Association (AMA)—the Oxford comma is optional.
  2. You should just use it anyway.

Oxford Comma: Just Do It

What is the Oxford Comma?

Sometimes called a serial comma, the Oxford comma is the last comma within a series or list in a sentence. For example:

  • This store sells groceries, clothing, and electronics.

The comma after “clothing” is the Oxford comma. Here is the sentence without it:

  • This store sells groceries, clothing and electronics.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Canadian Press (CP), and—surprisingly enough—the University of Oxford style guides, the sentence is correct without the Oxford comma.

In this case, the meaning of the sentence is clear either way. However, there are situations in which the absence of an Oxford comma can cause unintended ambiguity in your writing. For example:

  • I went shopping with my parents, Beyoncé and Victor Frankenstein.

Are Beyoncé and Victor Frankenstein the parents? Maybe. How about this sentence:

  • I went shopping with my parents, Beyoncé, and Victor Frankenstein.

With the Oxford comma, it is clear that the writer went shopping with Beyoncé and Victor Frankenstein as well as with his/her parents. Here’s another example:

  • This design comes in red and black, gray and purple and black and white.

What? Let’s try that with an Oxford comma:

  • This design comes in red and black, gray and purple, and black and white.

Now it is clear the design comes in three color schemes, each with two colors.

A $5 Million Mistake

One last piece of evidence regarding the clarity an Oxford comma can provide comes from a lawsuit settled by a dairy company in Maine. Three truck drivers sued the company, claiming they were owed four years’ worth of overtime. According to Maine state law, workers were not eligible for overtime pay for:

“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.”

Without a comma after “shipment,” the law seems to apply to packing for shipment or distribution, not to the actual distribution. The judge concurred, and the company settled the case, agreeing to pay $5 million to the drivers.

Omitting the Oxford comma can be a costly mistake. When in doubt, just use it.

Fewer or Less?

You’re waiting in the express check-out line at the grocery store, and you see this sign:

What's wrong with this picture?

Besides the fact that you have thirteen items, what’s wrong with this picture? According to most usage guides and your high school English teacher, the sign is grammatically incorrect. It should read “12 Items or Fewer.”

Writers make errors when choosing fewer or less without even realizing it. This is partly because our word choice when we speak doesn’t always match how we write or what we have been taught.

The general rule is to use fewer when referring to count nouns (things that can be counted) and to use less when talking about mass nouns (things that cannot be counted). For example:

  • The cashier smiled but silently wished you bought fewer bottles of water.
  • The cashier smiled but silently wished you bought less water.

You can’t count how many waters there are, so we use less. But you can count how many bottles of water, so we write fewer.

Another way to think of it, as the Chicago Manual of Style suggests, is to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns. This also applies to one of the biggest exceptions to the rule.

Of course there are exceptions. The English language loves exceptions to its rules!

For some reason, we typically use less when referring to only one thing, as in the phrase “one less thing to worry about.” You won’t find many cases of “one fewer thing to worry about,” even though it may technically be better grammar.

Other exceptions include contexts involving distance, time, money, weight, percentages, and the word “people.” For example:

  • The grocery store is less than five miles from our house.
  • It took less than ten minutes to put thirteen items into my shopping cart.
  • I thought my total bill would be less than twenty dollars.
  • This is supposed to be a pint, but it’s actually less than sixteen ounces.
  • Less than ten percent of the products in this store are organic.
  • I prefer grocery stores with less than twelve people shopping in them.

So, how do you know when to stray from the rules? In my opinion, the singular/plural consideration will help you make the right choice in most situations.

It also depends on the type of writing. If your piece is more formal (like an academic paper or a nonfiction article), be mindful of where fewer is more appropriate than less. If you are writing something more colloquial (such as fiction dialogue or informal blog posts), you have one less thing to worry about.

The Journey Begins

Welcome to the first blog post on my new website. I have three main goals for this site:

  • Showcase and offer my writing, editing, and proofreading services
  • Create connections with people through the English language
  • Offer helpful tips for better writing

Soon I will be publishing blog posts with such tips. Please have some patience with me while the site is under construction. In the meantime, enjoy these stock photos and feel free to contact me for more information about any of the above.

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton