I should maybe be ashamed of how many times I’ve managed to bring this illustration up in conversation. It’s definitely saved in my phone photos, probably more than once.
According to Business Insider, the Oxford comma is “extremely overrated” and appreciated exclusively by “people who care about grammar”—but given that so much of our communication is written, shouldn’t everyone care about grammar?1
A Mental Floss article lists the main proponents of the Oxford comma (in the US, at least) as book and magazine publishers, while those against include newspapers and law firms.2 Wait, what? As a grammar mark used mainly for the sake of clarification, shouldn’t news sources and law firms advocate the use of the comma?
Apparently it’s not just our language that doesn’t make any sense.
The author of the Business Insider article gives several often-used examples of instances in which an Oxford (aka serial) comma would clarify possible confusion in a sentence, but these are funnier, so I’ve included them instead (thanks, Tumblr):
According to the author, journalists and lawyers opt to omit the comma for the sake of concision. He demonstrates that the sentences commonly used to argue for the comma’s use can just as easily be used to argue against it, with minor rearrangements. And here, friends, we have reached the crucial observation: that most any sentence can be confusing or elucidating depending on its structure.
This, consequently, is why everyone should care about grammar.
Not even the “people who care about grammar” are decided on the topic of the Oxford comma, as some style guides require it and some, most notably AP style, don’t. Consistency is what really matters. So draw your own lines in the sand, but pay close attention to phrasing the next time you’re writing a sentence like, “I love spending time with my friends, books and cats.”
(If you’re one of the few for whom grammatical debates generate intrigue, check out this court case that literally hinged on a single comma.)