The Curious Case of the Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, or the serial comma as you commonly know it, is the final comma in a sentence with a list of things. The serial comma is usually placed before the conjunction, and. There are different schools of thought on the use of this comma. It’s common in US English, but the UK English often avoids it. Although completely optional, the meaning of a sentence could change drastically as we can see in the example below.

Ryan finally located his friend, a mountaineer and a policeman. It will surely be a memorable trek for Ryan in ways more than one.

Ryan finally located his friend, a mountaineer, and a policeman. It will surely be a memorable trek for Ryan in ways more than one.

Forget about the trek, it’s just so that you can think visually because you don’t know who or what Ryan is. Nevertheless, the serial comma was the only thing that saved Ryan’s friend splitting into three! Blabbering further, imagine the reaction on Ryan’s face when he reads the newspaper the next day, only to learn that he is a mountaineer and a policeman too!

Jokes apart, think in terms of business writing. You could easily end up stitching three companies into one, except that it would not be a hilarious read. Be assured that your manager will be left red-faced in the board room.

If you belong to the other school of thought that shuns the Oxford or serial comma, it should still be used if its absence renders the meaning ambiguous. Regardless of when the Oxford comma was invented, its purpose is to bring clarity.

Ryan’s trek gone bad makes for a good read, but definitely not the Maine dairy lawsuit which cost the Oakhurst dairy company USD5 million in 2014 over the use of the serial comma. The court of course ruled in favour of the drivers who had filed the lawsuit.

What’s the cure?
There’s none actually, because what is published is published. Whether you write reports or edit them, you need to be extra careful whenever a comma or the lack of it causes ambiguity. If it is company source and you have to write what came from the source, you still make that small phone call to confirm.