Breakfast Serial: Musings on the Oxford Comma

Cup of freshly brewed Folger's sitting on the table next to me, I'm gazing out the window at a gray October morning and contemplating one of the world's follies. In the broad scheme of follies, this one is harmless enough. Still, somebody has to ask, "How can the University of Oxford Writing and Style Guide do away with the Oxford comma?" Also commonly known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma appears just before the coordinating conjunctions andnotor, and nor as the last comma used in a list. The sentence you just read contains a perfect example. I'm a fan of the serial comma. It reduces head-scratching considerably, and I'm all for anything that clarifies meaning. For instance, consider the following:

The relationships I value most are with my brothers, Joel and God.

Does anything about that sentence bother you? Unless the writer has a truly extraordinary family, you have to wonder whether she hasn't taken the fraternal affection thing a bit too far.

The sentence needs fixing.

Serial comma to the rescue! Let's insert it where it clearly belongs, thus:

The relationships I value most are with my brothers, Joel, and God.

Yes, that will work. Now we've got a statement that should disturb no one's sleep. The serial comma crystallizes the meaning of an otherwise perplexing sentence. My intention here isn't to go into all the nuances of serial commas. Why repeat information that Wikipedia already presents so splendidly? No, I'm just musing on the irony of the Oxford style guide's eschewing the Oxford comma. You'd think that Oxford, of all places, would be a bastion for a punctuation that is its namesake.

To be fair ...

The Oxford style guide does allow for the judicious use of the serial comma where it enhances clarity. The guide states:
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:
  They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:
  The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury
So common sense ultimately prevails, and the sudden increase in air pressure you're now experiencing is the world exhaling a collective sigh of relief. Of course, if you've been using the serial comma all along, then you haven't bothered yourself with such concerns to begin with. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends the serial comma for a reason: It keeps writers--and readers--out of trouble. Maybe we should rename the Oxford comma, the Chicago comma. I wouldn't be the first to suggest the switch. Whatever you call it, the serial comma is a sanity saver, and at least in the United States, I don't think it's going to disappear anytime soon.