The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.
Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.
Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.
Yes, the Oxford comma often removes or reduces ambiguity. That’s why I like it and tend to use it. But the key word here is often. The Oxford comma doesn’t always help. In fact, it can also increase ambiguity. Adding it can introduce ambiguity that didn’t exist before.
A recent article at the Oxford Dictionaries blog, on cultural appropriation, has this nice example:
Here’s the image, in case your OS doesn’t format the tweet to show it:
Use of the Oxford comma in this line means that the phrase a woman in a hijab can be parsed as a non-restrictive appositive referring to Kendall Jenner. That’s not how I interpreted it – I read the line as it was intended, with a woman in a hijab as item two in a three-item list, both because I was familiar with the story and because a woman in a hijab would be an improbable appositional phrase in the context.
The writing is fine. My point is that the Oxford comma increases its ambiguity.
It’s not about plausible semantics. A line beloved by Oxford-comma disciples, the apocryphal ‘This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God’, is really only ambiguous theoretically. Few (if any) people would genuinely misread it, given the implications. Ditto the infamous line about Nelson Mandela being an 800-year-old demigod (and maybe a dildo collector).
The Kendall Jenner = a woman in a hijab interpretation is more plausible than either of these.
Reordering the list often resolves the problem. But the ideological debate, such as it is, seldom hinges on real confusion; instead, it relies on the same few humorous and fantastical examples to persuade – or, more commonly, to preach to the choir of the rule-loving faithful. And because the middle ground needs its armoury of entertaining examples too, here are a couple:
As an editor and proofreader, I notice Oxford commas and I notice their absence. And guess what: the potential for confusion or ambiguity is nearly always negligible or non-existent. If it weren’t, the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style would not be recommending different approaches.
On balance, the serial comma reduces the potential for trouble. But it’s not a panacea, and writers and editors shouldn’t treat it as one. By all means favour the Oxford comma – or not, if that’s your house style or your editorial kink. But think of it as a convention, not a commandment from some mythical Platonic realm of pure clarity.
Language is messy, consisting of patterns with awkward exceptions. This is why you do a disservice to your readers – and to your brain – when you turn a stylistic preference into a rigid rule instead of exercising your judgement, imagination(,) and common sense.
Another example, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard:
Squirrels, the neighborhood children, and I use the downstream fence as a swaying bridge across the creek.
Are squirrels the neighbourhood children? Poetically speaking, they could be, but I’m fairly sure that’s not the intent. Without the Oxford comma, there would be no ambiguity. This is not a criticism of the author or the punctuation style, just an observation in service of the discussion above.