I am a fan of the Oxford comma (also called the series or serial comma): parsley, sage, rosemary[,?] and thyme. Or at least I thought I was. Recent conversations and reading have led me to think again about where I place my comma allegiances, and why.
My go-to example in favour of the series comma has always been this one:
I’d like to thank my parents, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.
One might question who my parents are, exactly. Add the Oxford comma and the fog clears:
I’d like to thank my parents, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.
However, the fog clears only because “parents” is plural and Bono, bless him, is just one person. Consider this:
I’d like to thank my father, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.
Now we can’t tell the difference between the series comma and the pair of commas used to set off what’s called a non-restrictive appositive. A what now? This is just a fancy name for an optional descriptive word or phrase for the noun next to it. If Bono were my father, his name in this sentence would be an optional modifier of “father”. But since he is not, leaving out the series comma may actually be more clear:
I’d like to thank my father, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.
Or not. As you may have noticed, we have come full circle to a sentence constructed exactly like the first example. So an interesting side note might be that if Bono and Lady Gaga were indeed my parents, a second comma would be required in the first example above to delineate that sneaky non-restrictive appositive. Bonus points if you can place it. 🙂
In the end, and in my opinion, the best option is to change the order of the list in question:
I’d like to thank Bono, Lady Gaga[,] and my father [or parents] for their inspiration.
Now it really doesn’t matter if the series comma is there or not.
In her book The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller uses similar examples to caution against what she calls “witless, raging allegiance to one style or the other.” She acknowledges the importance of rules to establish standards for consistency. The rules are there for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary distraction for a reader. When following the rule itself becomes a distraction, then suddenly we editors have defeated our own purpose.
So am I still a fan of the Oxford comma? Perhaps, but hopefully not to the point of being witless and raging. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 6.19) maintains that the series comma solves more problems than it creates, and I tend to agree. However, I am rather charmed by the cheeky footnote at the beginning of Matthew Stevens’s book The Subtleties of Scientific Style, which sets a certain tone:
I am not a fervent proponent of the “serial” or “Oxford” comma, so you will find here instances of where I haven’t inserted a comma where you might have. Without our getting into an argument about “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, this usage reflects schooling and not logic. I can find examples of where the serial comma creates ambiguity, not solves it. But feel free to insert your own commas. Here are some spares: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,Matthew Stevens, The Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. viii
I am grateful for the reminder to avoid the tar pits of style rules, but what is life without a bit of serious silliness?