For Want of a Comma

In a recent celebrated court case, the judge wrote “For want of a comma, we have this case.” The suit was between some Maine dairy drivers and their company, and the court sided with the drivers based on the absence of the beloved Oxford comma. While it’s not headline news, it’s an interesting win for the side that uses commas correctly. Read about it here.

Ever since I’ve cared about writing, I’ve seen the logic and wisdom of the Oxford (or serial) comma used in a sentence’s list of items that CLEARLY signals the writer’s intent. Yet, among grammar nerds, this little curly cousin to the period continues to cause polarized opinions.

At work, I am required to go by AP Style for externally shared content, which states (in most cases) don’t use an Oxford comma, although their rule explanation allows it in complex lists. I think by then you’ve reached independent clause territory where Mr. Semicolon needs to make an appearance. Internal documents I put the comma back in, corporate rebel that I am! No, not really an anarchist, just want my intent to be clear.

I have tried to explore the reason and logic (assuming there is some) behind the Oxford comma’s absence, but the answers do not fully make sense to me. Here’s the current explanation from AP Stylebook:

Commas in a series are for clarity and prevention of ambiguities. In a simple series, a comma before the last item isn’t essential for clarity, so AP Style doesn’t use a comma in that instance. In series with more complexity, a comma may be needed for clarity, so AP Style allows a comma before the last item in such cases.

I love their simple series excuse. I now offer these simple series examples which show a lot of ambiguity, not to mention confusion when the Oxford comma is MIA:

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God
She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice president.

To be fair, it all comes down to clear meaning and a little rewriting can often clear up confusion and avoid the comma issue. An Oxford comma is a better way to be clear in most cases. Why confuse the reader when it’s easily avoidable?

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