I was taught in primary school that a common noun refers to a thing, idea, person, etc. whereas a proper noun refers to a specific thing, idea, person, etc. and that when referring to specifics and proper nouns, the words were always capitalised.

The way I see it, the Oxford comma is a specific type of a thing (comma), hence a proper noun, ergo capitalisation for both words.

A theoretical example of this is Tom's ball. If Tom owns a ball, it is not capitalised. However, when he prints a new pattern on many balls of the same variety and gives them to his friends, he would call it a Tom Ball, rather than a Tom ball, right?

Why is this not the case for the Oxford comma, seeing it is not Oxford's comma?

I would appreciate if you could also make reference to the example I used in the question in your answer to further assist me in understanding.

  • 1
    Oxford is a proper noun; a comma is not. Hence it's an Oxford comma or a serial comma. Apr 20, 2016 at 0:48
  • When would 'comma' be acceptable as a proper noun, if ever? For instance, in the term 'Big Mac', 'big' is a common adjective made into a proper adjective. I assume it is due to trademark?
    – cgde
    Apr 20, 2016 at 0:49
  • Perhaps if it were an artwork? Like The Bean. Name your kid Comma? Apr 20, 2016 at 1:01
  • Capitalize it and it should be part of a name / title. Don't and people will take it for the word that it is. Apr 20, 2016 at 3:37
  • 2
    It's more like a Fedex truck.
    – Jim
    Apr 20, 2016 at 3:55

2 Answers 2


The term Oxford comma is simply a common noun (comma) modified by a proper place name (Oxford). The term alludes to the fact that Oxford University Press has long enforced the style rule of including a serial comma after the penultimate term in a parallel series of words or phrases—for example, after the word comma in the following sentence:

Darcy had always had a weakness for Philadelphia lawyers, Oxford commas, and Boston baked beans.

Since the term is Oxford comma is not proprietary, and since comma doesn't become a proper noun merely by association with a proper place name next door, there is no reason to capitalize it as Oxford Comma—any more than there is reason to capitalize anything but the place name in Philadelphia lawyer or Boston baked bean.

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003), has this to say about the Oxford comma as one of the nine main uses of commas:

First, the comma separates items (including the lat from the next to last) in a series of more than two—e.g. "The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons." In this position, it's called, variously, the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma.

Garner's book was published by Oxford University Press, which has as much reason as any other entity to claim a proprietary interest in "the Oxford comma." Consequently, the fact that Garner leaves comma lowercase in his mention of "the Oxford comma" strongly suggests that OUP has never viewed the entire term as a proper name. And that's just as well, if the alternative might be a squabble between Oxford and Harvard over their competing claims to the punctuation rule.


The proper noun Oxford is used as modifying noun to modify comma. As you said there is not a single comma that is referred to, but a comma of the Oxford variation is referred. Thus, an Oxford comma. The same happens with a Beethoven symphony. As you can see, putting an indefinite article in front of it doesn't seem odd. It shows that the proper nouns (or even proper names) Oxford and Beethoven are just modifying the following noun.

Have a look at this question regarding articles and proper nouns. If you consider undisputed proper nouns like Royal Air Force, Italy, Mozart you will notice that you don't use the phrase Oxford comma the same. Using an indefinite article before them would refer to a notion of it in another time or state or using them as representative of a notion.

It was a Royal Air Force in pitiful condition.

The speech presented an Italy of the Future.

The young girl played like a future Mozart.

On the other hand the sentence, I put an Oxford comma in there, does no such thing if you take Oxford comma together as noun. It's just a noun phrase with the proper name Oxford modifying the common noun comma.

  • But we usually say Rubik's Cube and not Rubik's cube, and this is treated in the same way as Oxford comma. But I agree that the difference is that a Rubik's Cube is viewed a proper noun (it's probably a copyrighted name), but an Oxford comma is viewed as a special kind of comma. Sep 14, 2016 at 15:36

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