The Oxford comma is the most controversial punctuation mark of all. It is the comma before “and” in a series of items, and for that reason is also called the “serial” comma. It became known as the Oxford comma because it was prescribed by the Oxford University Press. When it was rumoured that the OUP was dropping the Oxford comma, one punctuation fanatic tweeted, “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”
A Google search reveals just how controversial it is. See for yourself. Some institutes and style sheets advocate its use; others oppose it. It’s the one punctuation mark grammarians would go to war over. It’s a simmering dispute, and every so often it boils over.
One of the most recent disputes was over the wording of the slogan on the new British 50p coin.
Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations
Never mind the absurdity of the slogan itself: Brexit has hardly encouraged peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations. Quite the contrary! But critics were as opposed to the punctuation as much as the message. It should have read, say the proponents of the Oxford comma,
Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations
The author, Philip Pullman, was particularly vexed: "The 'Brexit' 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people," he tweeted.
Some style books insist on the comma before the “and”; others say Never! Some students were taught at school always to apply the Oxford comma; others, the opposite.
Who is correct? Well, there is one rule for commas that prevails over all others: use a comma (or not) to make your meaning clear. Let’s apply that common-sense rule.
What the slogan is advocating is peace with all nations, and prosperity with all nations, and friendship with all nations, equal weight being given to peace and prosperity and friendship. But with the Oxford comma the slogan might seem to advocate peace [pause], and prosperity [pause], and friendship with all nations. The meaning is skewed, and the use of the Oxford comma is not only unnecessary, but wrong, to my mind.
Take an even simpler example:
Tom, Dick and Harry
Tom, Dick, and Harry
Adding the Oxford comma places unnecessary emphasis on Harry. It is wrong. We might wonder, why Harry?
(Now proponents of the Oxford comma will disagree with every thing I have written so far. To their ear, the comma is necessary. But they will agree with what follows.)
On the other hand, in a longer sentence with a series of groups of words, the Oxford comma is often neccesary to ensure all the items are given equal weight and the last two do not lump together:
For breakfast, I had juice, bacon and eggs, and coffee.
That example is clear cut, but even in this sentence from the Globe,
Indeed, the organization’s mandate is one of coordination, policy articulation, technical leadership and research and monitoring.
Isn’t a comma necessary after “leadership”?
In brief, usually, in a series of words the Oxford comma is unnecessary, and often wrong; and in a series of groups of words, the Oxford comma is correct, and often necessary. But there are always exceptions, and only a careful reading aloud will tell you whether to apply the comma or not.
But you can be sure that within the next year or so you will read of a new controversy over the use of the Oxford comma.