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Along with the semi-colon, the use of the Oxford (or series) comma is one of the hottest debates around in punctuation.

One favourite illustration of its use is the apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” or “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.” One small comma; one major shift in meaning.

More recently, the debate was reinvigorated on the introduction of the 50 pence coin produced to mark the UK’s exit from the EU. One side of the coin reads: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. Author Philip Pullman was so incensed at the lack of comma after “prosperity”, that he called for the coin to be boycotted.

In Maine, USA, the lack of an Oxford comma had legal implications when a group of delivery drivers argued that the lack of a comma in their contracts made them eligible for overtime pay. Had the following sentence included one more comma (after “shipment”), the outcome could have been very different: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

Rather than a purely grammatical argument, the decision came down to the ambiguity that resulted from not including the comma.

Do we care? At wordsandwork, we do. If a client’s house style is to use the Oxford comma, we use it. If we are making the call, we don’t use it unless not to use it causes ambiguity.

For us at wordsandwork, what matters above all is clarity of communication and consistency of use.


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