When there are three or more items in a list it is important to get it right. Hotly debated at times, the inclusion of the serial comma, i.e., a comma between the next-to-last and last items in a list, is a matter of style for magazines and newspapers. For legal writers, however, insistence on clarity over the potential for confusion (or awkward misunderstandings) is more important that stylistic simplicity.The Bluebook Uniform System of Citation concurs with Anne Edwards of grammarly.com, whose terse article follows.
What Is the Oxford Comma and Why Do People Care So Much About It?
By Ann Edwards
The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things. For example: Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook. The Oxford comma comes right after eraser.
Use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, meaning that some style guides demand its use while others don’t. AP Style—the style guide that newspaper reporters adhere to—does not require the use of the Oxford comma. The sentence above written in AP style would look like this:
Please bring me a pencil, eraser and notebook.
Unless you’re writing for a particular publication or drafting an essay for school, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings.
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.
Those who oppose the Oxford comma argue that rephrasing an already unclear sentence can solve the same problems that using the Oxford comma does. For example:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. could be rewritten as: I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.