If I eat some bacon, eggs, and toast …do you not think that the toast looks and sounds as if it might have been a bit of an afterthought? I do, and the effect is caused by that last comma, just before the “and”. It’s called a ‘serial comma’, though because the Oxford University Press Style Book commends it, it’s frequently referred to as the “Oxford Comma”.
Commas generally indicate a slight pause for breath, so that written form of the list makes me want to whistle a bit and put the kettle on before we get around to mentioning the toast. It’s therefore wrong. What I actually had for breakfast was some bacon, eggs and toast. No final comma before ‘and’, you see. No pause. Just a nice, fluid finish to a three-item list. Breakfast over in a jiffy, too.
Now, some people will claim this means I ate two things, not three, but I think it takes a peculiar kind of literalist to get confused on this matter. Eggs and toast remain two physical things even if the ‘and’ is taken to conjoin them grammatically, after all.
Oxfordians will also cite the old man who left his money to “Jill, Joe and Mary” and thus incited a family feud between Joe and Mary (who got half the cash between them) and Jill, who’s busy enjoying her half of the money all on her own. If only, they argue, the will had said “I leave my money to Jill, Joe, and Mary”. The final comma makes his intentions unambiguous! My advice to the old man is rather different: get a new lawyer. One that can write without ambiguity in a document where such a thing is important after all. “I leave my money in three equal shares to Jill, Joe and Mary” resolves the matter without recourse to extraneous commas.
Hilariously, Oxfordians point to this lovely example (allegedly written in The Times): “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. Apparently, we all need an extra comma to persuade us that Nelson Mandela is neither an 800 year-old demigod nor a dildo collector. I disagree: anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Nelson Mandela knows this interpretation is wrong, so we don’t need the extra comma to clarify things for us. Furthermore, if the sentence had been written as “…encounters with a dildo collector, an 800 year-old demigod and Nelson Mandela”, would anyone be complaining? I think not… which goes to show that the Times writer’s intention was deliberately contrived ambiguity and humour.
Oxfordians also claim the avoidance of the comma is an unnecessary complication of the rules: you stick it between other items in the list. Why not use it at the end, then? To which the answer is two-fold: you don’t use it because the word “and” (or “or”) is acting as a list separator anyway. So it’s redundant. Moreover, there is no complication of rules taking place in any case because the very, very simple rule actually being applied is: “never stick a comma before a conjunction”. (Like all good rules, I’ll allow an occasional exception now and again -I’m generous like that- but the very strong emphasis is on “occasional”).
Rogers’ Corollary to that rule is: if you ever find yourself feeling that on this occasion it’s necessary to break the rule, re-write your sentence. You will be tempted to break it because the sentence reads as if there is some ambiguity or other that the additional comma will resolve. But this simply means you’ve been ambiguous in your writing and it’s your writing that needs to improve, not the rule of punctuation that needs to be broken.
Unfortunately, the serial comma is (apparently) taught as standard in the United States, so I’ve now just annoyed at least half my readership, such as it is; but there you go. Sometimes, these things need to be said!
If my readers could also absorb one other rule of grammar as well before they depart these pages in high dudgeon, I should be most grateful: the words “could”, “should” and “would” (see what I didn’t do there??!) are never, ever, ever followed by the word “of”. How we’ve managed to produce an entire cohort who think transcribing the sounds they make counts as writing, I have no idea, but “he could of done that if he’d wanted to” is an abomination that says to me, via megaphone, “I am either as thick as two short planks or can’t be bothered reading over what I’ve written to see if it makes sense before sharing it with you”. In either case, it’s a dumb thing to admit to.
Irregardless isn’t a word, either.
And if you are going to write up and say “It doesn’t matter, because language is organic and an ever-changing thing and you shouldn’t get too uptight about it; learn to love the evolution”, all I would say in advance is: it is only ever those who are incapable of sticking to rules that seem to think the rules don’t matter. I’ve never heard a legally-sober driver complaining that the drink/driving laws are a bit too strict or inflexible, for example. I have, however, watched plenty of busted drivers saying, ‘but I was only half-a-drink over!’, amounting to a plea to have the limit bent a little in their case because ‘it’s only fair, innit, guv’.
Er… no it’s not.