In and of itself, the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma) isn’t exactly a font of irony. The ironic part is rather that it is not widespread in British English (BE) but rather in American English (AE). In Great Britain, only Oxford College itself prescribes the use of its comma while Brits otherwise list things without the added comma.
But what is the serial comma actually?
It concerns a sequence of several elements concluded usually with an “and.” (This also applies to “or” and other conjunctions.) The serial comma is placed before the final conjunction, i.e.:
AE: The boys were watching cars on the highway. They saw red, blue, yellow, and green vehicles.
In BE, the Oxford comma is usually missing:
BE: The boys were watching cars on the highway. They saw red, blue, yellow and green vehicles.
Here, that doesn’t make much of a difference. The statement is valid and clear either way.
So, is the Oxford comma just one of these individualistic things that you can happily ignore? Well, looking at expert opinions on the Internet – authors or editors, say -, you’ll quickly get caught up in a hurricane of opposing opinions. Friends and foes of the serial comma delight in waging war against each other over what is the better choice. Its opponents prefer the simplicity of life without the Oxford comma and believe that you’ll understand everything easily.
The fans on the other hand gladly provide examples where Oxford makes things clearer:
BE: I went fishing with my two boys, Paul and Bob.
Everything seems okay here, but the next sentence would be: All five of us were having fun. Eh, five? The serial comma solves the riddle:
AE: I went fishing with my two boys, Paul, and Bob.
Now we understand: Dad, his two sons and their friends Paul and Bob were at the lake. The Oxford comma clarifies that Dad didn’t list the names of his children after the comma.
Then there are the rather weirder versions, such as:
BE: On her trip through Asia, Karen met the tourist John, a chopstick collector and an exotic dancer.
Well, jolly old John seems to have a couple of interesting hobbies here. With the Oxford comma, he gets somewhat boring, though:
AE: On her trip through Asia, Karen met the tourist John, a chopstick collector, and an exotic dancer.
Or how about the following?
BE: I love reading, eating crisps and my cat.
Oops… Me, I prefer the AE version:
AE: I love reading, eating chips, and my cat.
Of course, with a little common sense, you can understand each of these sentences without the Oxford comma. And to be honest, a lot here is rather awkwardly put together to get the idea across. The bottom line is that everyone must choose what he or she prefers.
There’s just one rule that always applies: Stick with it! If you start using the Oxford comma in a text, you’ll have to keep using it everywhere. The same applies if you want to leave it out.