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The oxford comma is the second comma in the sentence I like the colors red, white, and blue. Every grammar textbook I've ever seen, as well as the major style guides, feels that this is "proper" despite the fact that most American periodicals exclude it. In fact, most Americans, even professionally educated ones, are not aware of this and consider it wrong. I do resume work on the side and have had interviewees complain that they were specifically chided for using an oxford comma—and other interviewees for not using one! I now recommend staying away from lists because of this.

My question is: How pervasive is the use of the oxford comma in English-speaking, non-American countries? Especially in Canada and Great Britain, is there an expectation in formal writing one way or the other?

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Your question title is very general, and your specific question is about the pervasiveness of the Oxford comma, and wanting to give up all lists because no one agrees.

I suggest that "pervasive" depends on the type of writing (book, science, academic, or news) and--rather than give up on lists--you decide on your style guide and then handle exceptions to it as they arise.

As far I know, there is no commonly accepted style guide for resumes, so I have a short answer and a long answer on how you could proceed.

Short answer: Advise your client of the style guide you follow, and ask if they have exceptions they want you to follow.

Long answer: Choose a style guide and consistently use a decision process.

This is my decision process on whether to use the oxford comma:

  1. What's my authority style guide? (Chicago Manual of Style, APA Publication Manual, The Associate Press Stylebook, or other)
  2. Does an in-house style override the authority style?
  3. Regardless of in-house style, could the comma (or lack of it) make the list ambiguous?

If I still can't decide, then I open "The best punctuation book, period." by June Casagrande. (I do not know June; I just love her book. Your library might carry it.)

Here's what her book states for the different types of style guides:

Book, Science, and Academic style guides

When the final item in the series of words or phrases is preceded by a coordinating junction, especially and, insert a comma before the conjunction.

They play football, basketball, and soccer.

News style guides

When the final item in the series of words or phrases is preceded by a coordinating junction, especially and, do not insert a comma before the conjunction.

They play football, basketball and soccer.

All style guides

When the final item in the series of clauses is preceded by a coordinating junction, especially and, insert a comma before the conjunction.

In the 1980s, music was loud, hair was big, and clubs were hopping along Sunset Boulevard.

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"How pervasive is the use of the Oxford comma in English-speaking, non-American countries? Especially in Canada and Great Britain, is their an expectation in formal writing one way or the other?"

I've noticed no strong expectation either way in Britain. Quite honestly, I think most editors reckon they are doing well these days if they get a writer who actually knows enough about punctuation to worry about the presence or absence of the Oxford comma.

Posting this because it's funny: The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars. I particularly liked the last example.

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    I wonder why some people seem to think that things other than newspapers should read like newspapers? I was taught to use a comma before "and", and unless one is trying to minimize character counts (common in a newspaper) would suggest that it's more often helpful than not. In the first "con" example from the linked piece, I'd probably say "..., and the donor of the cup, as well as..." to make clear that Mr. Smith wasn't an appositive, though in the event that I did want to say Mr. Smith was the cup donor I'd write "(i.e. Mr. Smith)". – supercat Dec 3 '15 at 23:24
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    Re: Best Shots Fired. If the presence or absence of a comma makes your sentence ambiguous, it needs to be rephrased. – user5645 Dec 6 '15 at 8:13
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There are two traditions in Britain that I am aware of: use lots of commas; only use them when necessary to indicate pauses. I have not heard of using a comma before 'and' as being an Oxford comma. What I have read is that Cambridge uses commas less.

Let me give you an example: Because it was raining, we put up our umbrellas.

Many people would say that the comma could be left out after 'raining' (Cambridge). Others say that it is a subordinate clause at the beginning of sentence and so needs a comma (Oxford).

  • The question is about the Oxford Comma - comma use in lists before the "and" - and not about general comma use. – Neil Fein Dec 3 '15 at 23:51

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