It seems so simple. The final comma in a list of things. But oh, it’s so much more. Also known as the serial comma. Lesser known as the Harvard comma or series comma. And known to me as a thorn in my side on an almost daily basis. I wonder how many red markers I’ve gone through just by adding or deleting this one tiny punctuation mark.
This is not because I have a strong feeling one way or the other regarding its use, but because it’s maddening to try to keep the use consistent when there is no one single rule to follow. However, there are lots of other people who have VERY strong feelings and would battle to the death over it, it seems.
I majored in journalism and journalists follow the AP style guide. This style guide is one that does NOT require the use of this comma. So that’s what I learned and has been ingrained in me. However, when there is a specific instance where it needs to be used in order to provide clarity, I will of course include it.
We’ve all seen these examples…
And I totally get it. Sometimes if you don’t use it, it can clearly makes things super weird and you have to use your own judgement to know when and how to use it. But should we use it 100 percent of the time, even when it’s not needed, so that it doesn’t make some things weird five percent of the time when it is needed? I don’t know.
I would have no problem using the Oxford comma all the time as is required by the APA, Chicago and MLA style guides, if that is what I was asked to do.
These situations are made so much easier when a client states their preference in their own business style guide and you can go by that. But when they don’t – or when it’s for something internal or for a prospective client – then it falls on you to decide. There is nothing worse than proofreading a document that has many contributors and each person’s section can be identified by the use of or lack of Oxford commas. You then either have to remove them all, or add in missing ones to make the entire document consistent.
All the style guides have picked sides. Most people have. And some clients have. Have you?