More on the Oxford Comma in Microsoft Word

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To many people the Oxford Comma is an obscure grammar issue but, boy!, can it get people excited.  We’ve had lots of messages, pro and con, from readers.

This all started because Microsoft dropped one of the options available for the Oxford Comma check.  In Office 2016 (Windows or Mac) you can’t get a warning if the Oxford Comma IS present – only when it’s missing.

Microsoft now uses the phrase ‘Oxford Comma’ in its dialog box instead of ‘Comma required before last item’.  The Oxford Comma is also known as serial comma, series comma, Harvard Comma etc.

Why the Oxford Comma matters

In many cases, the additional comma doesn’t make any difference to understanding a sentence.

 The U.S. flag is red, white and blue

Despite that, Word 2016’s Oxford Comma check will prompt you to add it.

But there are lists where the Oxford Comma is necessary to avoid confusion.

These are the famous examples of the extra comma being necessary.  Drop the Oxford Comma and it reads that the parents are unusual – to say the least.

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God”


“She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

Word’s Oxford Comma check

There is a case for only adding the extra comma when it’s necessary for clarity.  Sadly, that level of contextual discernment is beyond Word’s current abilities.  It’s up to us humans to decide when the extra comma is necessary for clarity.

University of Oxford style guide, Strunk & White and The Chicago Manual of Style all support the consistent use of the Oxford Comma.

AP Style Guide is a notable dissenter going against the serial comma except when it’s necessary for clarity.

Some in-house style guides go against the Oxford Comma so Word should be able to warn when the extra comma is being used.

In other words, it’s not Microsoft’s job to impose style and grammar preferences on their customers

Instead we get a downgraded Oxford Comma check in Word 2016.  The only choice is to check for the comma or not.  Options | Proofing | Writing Styles | Grammar & more … | Settings

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