I run an IELTS writing correction service and every day I mark 10 or 15 different essays by students from around the world. One of the most common comments that I make is: “I strongly recommend you use the Oxford comma.”

Why do I say this?

Read on and find out everything there is to know about the Oxford comma and IELTS.

What is the Oxford Comma?

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First of all, it is important to establish what the Oxford comma actually is because this sometimes confuses people. To put it simply, the Oxford comma is a method of writing lists that includes a comma before the final item.

Let’s say that you are going to list three countries. Which of the following two methods is best?

  1. Last year, I visited France, Germany, and Spain.
  2. Last year, I visited France, Germany and Spain.

Option #1 was the Oxford comma, and I think that it is the best. Notice how there is a comma before the word “and”. In any situation where there are three or more items listed, the Oxford comma requires a comma before the final one. This is true for lists with “and” or “or”:

  • Do you want chicken, beef, or fish for dinner?

Why is the Oxford Comma so Important

In the above example with the three countries, you may notice that #2 is not really wrong. In fact, it is perfectly fine. So why do we even bother with the Oxford comma at all?

In most cases, it doesn’t matter whether you use the Oxford comma or not, but in some situations it is necessary in order to avoid confusion. For this reason, I highly recommend that everyone uses the Oxford comma in their writing. Even if there is a 2% chance that your work may include a particularly difficult list of ideas, it is worthwhile using the Oxford comma to make sure that it is completely understood.

Look at the following example:

  • In 1990, three kinds of product experience a drop in sales: home furnishings, food and beverages and electronics and video games.

In this sentence, what are the three categories?

  1. Home furnishings
  2. Food and beverages
  3. Electronics and video games

This is logically clear because there food and beverages go together while electronics and video games are clearly separate. However, sometimes it is not so obvious. Moreover, it is a little confusing because there are three consecutive “ands” in this sentence!

One small additional comma makes the whole sentence look better and avoids any sort of confusion:

  • In 1990, three kinds of product experience a drop in sales: home furnishings, food and beverages, and electronics and video games.

That extra comma clearly separates the categories into three groups. There could be no mistaking this.

A Video About Commas

Hey, check out this recent video I made all about using a comma!

Why Bother with the Oxford Comma for IELTS?

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Most people who sit the IELTS exam do not speak perfect English. Their writing will almost certainly contain some errors, and many people score just 5 or 5.5. In these cases, the writing will often become unclear. When you are writing a difficult description, it is important to keep your ideas clear and simple. You do not want the examiner to feel confused because he or she will not spend much time trying to figure out your meaning.

In short,

CONFUSION = LOW SCORE

Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that all students should use the Oxford comma to avoid any sort of misunderstanding in their data. This is doubly true for IELTS writing task 1, where you may encounter many kinds of idea or information that need to be listed.

Here is an example from a description of a line graph:

  • Firstly, the sales and office, industrial, and technical fields showed growth in their employment rates as in the first year they were all below 5% but ended up with 20%, 39%, and 32% respectively in 2010.

This is a difficult sentence because it contains so many commas. However, with fewer commas the ideas may not be so clear. The Oxford comma has been used twice here – firstly in the list of “fields” and secondly in the list of percentages. Particularly when a list contains “and” or “or” within it, it is important to use commas to divide up the ideas contained within.

Here is another example:

  • Domestic water consumption in Africa, Central Asia, and South East Asia accounts for almost 10% and the figures for industrial use in the three countries are 7%, 5%, and 12% respectively.

Again, this sentence contains two different Oxford commas. Although the meaning is clearer here, the information is presented in a much better way when divided neatly by this method of punctuation.

So… is the Oxford Comma Really Necessary for IELTS?

The answer is NO, it is not strictly necessary; however, YES, it is probably the best way of punctuating your essay. Using the Oxford comma will help you avoid confusion and make your writing neater and better organized. For these reasons and more, I absolutely recommend that everyone uses the Oxford comma.

Just remember one last thing: Be consistent. In your writing, you should either always use the Oxford comma or never use it. Don’t use it for some things and not for another. A lack of consistency is definitely going to negatively impact your score.

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