The Infamous Oxford Comma

May 27th, 2014

Though it sounds too sophisticated for the common man, the Oxford comma is something everyone has come across.  Also known as the serial comma, it’s the comma used between the second-to-last and the last item in a list.

For instance, “Last summer, I visited Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.”

The comma that is found right after Bolivia is an Oxford comma. While some grammarians would say that this comma is essential, others would say that it is redundant and incorrect, and that the sentence should be “Last summer, I visited Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.”

Depending on whom you ask, both are correct; what is important for every translator to keep in mind is the medium through which his or her translation will be used, and what sort of style guide governs that domain.

Ideally, the client would provide a style guide that would indicate whether or not to use an Oxford comma. Most translators would agree that the ideal situation is more the exception than the rule, so let’s identify which styles call for the Oxford comma, and which styles do not.

For the Oxford comma

It is called the Oxford comma because it was found in the Oxford University Press style guide. So if you find yourself translating for them, be sure to use it! The Oxford comma is also found in scholarly works, manuals, contracts and other legal documents. Anything that requires a high level of precision normally requires it, since the Oxford comma can help to reduce ambiguity. Examples of style guides that call for the Oxford comma include:

The MLA Style Manual

The Chicago Manual of Style

The US Government Printing Office Style Guide

The AMA (American Medical Association) Style Guide

The APA (American Psychological Association) Style Guide

Against the Oxford comma

Journalistic publications, including newspapers and magazines, will most likely reject any use of the Oxford comma. The reason for this is simple: for these publications, space is very valuable, and leaving out non-essential punctuation is important. Also, despite the comma’s namesake, British, Australian, Canadian, and South African publications generally omit this comma from non-scholarly work unless it is absolutely necessary to avoid ambiguity. So take note; the following style guides do not use the serial comma:

The Associated Press Style Guide

The Economist Style Guide

The Guardian Style Guide

The New York Times stylebook

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

In most other languages, like Spanish, French, German, Russian, etc., the Oxford comma is not used. That being said, it is the translator’s job to research any language pair and the style guide that the client requires to find out if they should or should not use it.