The serial comma, most commonly known as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, is used before a coordinating conjunction (‘and’ or ‘or’) in a list of three or more items in a list. For example:
Cheddar, brie, and gorgonzola.
The serial comma remains a controversial topic among grammar enthusiasts, some arguing that it is unnecessary and can cause ambiguity. Some, less opposed to the idea but still believing it to be unnecessary, consider it a stylistic choice employed by writers.
I fall into the opposite camp: the serial comma is necessary for the flow of a sentence and the ease of reader comprehension. Without it, tragic, though often humorous, misunderstandings can occur. Here’s an example of how this single comma can change the meaning of a sentence:
I had cereal, toast, and coffee.
The above sentence, though a little clumsy, is easily understood. I merely describe what I ate for my breakfast. Simple. But remove that all-important comma though and we get the following:
I had cereal, toast and coffee.
Without the comma, the sentence is now a little more ambiguous. Did I mix the toast into the coffee? Am I telling the toast and coffee that I had cereal?
A better and real-life example of the serial comma being omitted and triggering a hilarious backlash was when The Times had the following TV-listing description:
Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. Highlights of his tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
Who would have thought the late Nelson Mandela had lived such a long life and possessed such an interesting collection?
More recently, a dairy company in Maine, USA had a $10 million lawsuit filed against it due to a missing comma in the state’s legal clause. Noticing the grammatical loophole, several dairy-truck drivers took their chances and sued Oakhurst Dairy for four years’ worth of unpaid overtime. The legal clause in question was:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Because there was no comma following “packing for shipment” separating it from “distribution”, making it clear that they are two different things included in the list, the dairy-truck drivers argued that the law thus technically spares distribution from overtime exemption.
The judge ultimately ruled in favour of the dairy-truck drivers due to the confusion brought about by the lack of what many consider an “unnecessary” comma.
There are a dozen more examples proving the necessity of the serial comma. A simple Google search will provide you with hundreds of amusing examples.
In my mind, there is no doubt about it: the serial comma is a necessity.