The Oxford Comma, also known as the "Serial Comma," has been on my mind today. That's because I have had, in my day job, to go over our style and usage manual--who said there's no adventure in law?--and determine what we would change and what we would keep.
Ah, the Oxford Comma. Embraced by the APA, The Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Guide, Strunk and White's Elements of Style (at p. 3!), and the U.S. Government printing Office Style Manual (Rule 8.42, at p. 201).
In England, though, Oxford University stands alone in its defense.
Now, I admit it, I like the Oxford Comma. First, because--well, sorry; Anglophile here, and still have a sentimental attachment to Oxford University Press, the first institution that sent me mail from England--the Barset novels and Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, when they were out of print in the US, and my heart would thrill a bit at getting mail from England, Actual English books, not American editions. "Colour" not "color." And the Oxford Comma.
But that's no real reason. No, the real reason is that if you leave it out, you can write absurd sentences that make you look gormless.
A few examples:
"She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president."The Oxford Comma: More necessary than an umbrella.
This example from the Chicago Manual of Style shows how the comma is necessary for clarity. Without it, she is taking a picture of two people, her mother and father, who are the president and vice president. With it, she is taking a picture of four people.
"This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God"
A probably apocryphal book dedication, this example has been a favorite of pro-Oxford comma language blogs for a while. Without the comma before "and," you get a rather intriguing set of parents.
"By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."
Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It's from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can't keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There's only so much a comma can do.