When people hear I’ve published a book on writing, many of them ask for my views on the ‘Oxford’ or ’serial’ comma, in that intense ‘please confirm my own view’ sort of way.
The Oxford comma, so called because the University Press has long insisted on it, is used in lists: A, B, and C. Whether one needs the comma before the and is apparently one of the great punctuation controversies of our time.
Clinging to the Oxford comma seems to be a badge of honour for some, a beacon of erudition in a barbarous age. I’ve even seen it mentioned in online dating and Twitter profiles, presumably as an indication of moral rectitude and lofty personal standards. ‘Oxford Comma’ is also the title of a 2008 pop song by Vampire Weekend, but the band’s intention seems to be gentle mockery of the Society for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma, a Columbia student group.
Those, like the SPOC, with a weird attachment to the Oxford comma are usually disappointed when I say I don’t care about it one way or the other, and don’t think it necessary. (I do use Oxford commas in the book, because that’s my publisher’s house style; I’d prefer to dispense with them.)
I haven’t given the necessity point much thought until recently — but I now think I can justify what has hitherto been an off-hand comment.
In a list of two items, no commas are necessary if you use and to connect the items: A and B. Where you have more things to list, you need something to separate them: a comma or the word and. Otherwise, you might run into confusion: A B and C just isn’t the way we do things, especially where A B might seem like one thing, not two. You could do A and B and C, but it’s more usual, with longer lists in particular, to separate items with a comma. The and that precedes the final item in the list is therefore a replacement for the commas that separate the preceding items. As a result, I think one can say you need either a comma or and — but not both.
Use the Oxford comma before the final item if it makes you feel traditional or superior or particular, but it doesn’t add anything useful because you already have and separating the two final things in your list. Right?