I was asked the other day if it’s OK to put a comma before the word ‘and’.
Despite what you may have been taught in primary school, my answer was a clear ‘yes’. In fact, the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma, as it’s sometimes known) – the final comma in a list of things – has the ability to entirely change the meaning of your sentence.
The Oxford Comma seems akin to marmite: some love it, others hate it. I fall firmly in the former camp. Whether or not it’s ‘technically’ required is a moot point. To make your meaning clear, it’s a pretty crucial punctuation mark.
Let me give you a few examples:
I went out for dinner with my parents, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
The above sentence reads as though your parents are, in fact, Leo and Kate. Which may have made a lovely real-life ending for the Titanic movie, but probably isn’t quite true.
Try again, this time with the comma:
I went out for dinner with my parents, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet.
Second time around, it’s quite clear that there were three separate parties invited to your meal. Aside from the fact that you’d clearly be well connected (and were probably schmoozing at the Oscars party last night) your message is clearer.
Here’s another, potentially confusing, case:
I went out for dinner with my parents, Jesus and Judi Dench.
With no comma after and, this statement suggests that your father is Mr Jesus Dench, husband of the actress Judi.
In this delightful example, poor Michelle Obama is being cast aside while Barack sets a date for his marriage to Fidel Castro:
And I’ll refrain from passing comment from this genuine example from The Times (who are in my bad books at the moment anyway for putting Evelyn Waugh on a list of ‘Female Authors’, but that’s a rage for another time):
Next time anyone asks you if the Oxford Comma is vital, just refer them to these examples. They’ll soon be put right.