On the Oxford comma

When you write a list of three or more items, unless you display them as a bulleted or numbered list, you conventionally separate the items with either a comma or the word ‘and’ (or sometimes ‘or’). You may choose to separate the last two items in the list with just the word ‘and’, or with a comma followed by ‘and’:

  • Her shirt was red, green and blue.
  • Her shirt was red, green, and blue.

If you choose the second option, you’re using the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma. This little punctuation mark arouses surprisingly strong emotions: many people will be happy to tell you that omitting the Oxford comma is simply wrong. Others will assert it is both unnecessary and ugly.

Writing – and editing – with style

Whenever you write, you’re making style decisions.

Sometimes they’re big decisions, which affect a whole book or website: will I use US spellings or Australian ones? Sometimes they’re small ones: is haute cuisine a foreign term to be italicised, or has it become an English one? Sometimes they’re made for you – if you’re writing a thesis, your university or department is likely to specify the referencing system you are to use.

If you want to be consistent – and consistency makes life easier for your readers, so you probably do – you’ll find an editorial style sheet useful.

What an editor does

Editing is a process in which an author’s text or other material is corrected, reorganised, condensed, expanded or modified to create a product which meets the needs of both author and audience. An editor’s level of intervention may range from the very lightest touch – identifying spelling and grammatical mistakes – to completely rewriting and reorganising the whole work.

Levels of editing

The range of editing work is often divided into three stages or levels: