I used to be careful to use the Oxford comma because that's what I was taught to do, and I've never had a problem with absorbing the accepted style. But then I started writing for a newspaper and I was forced to reverse my long-standing policy and cut the comma after Dick. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. All right, I get it. But why? Because in so many hundreds or thousands of copies of so many pages of broadsheet, each unnecessary comma wastes an appreciable, cumulative amount of ink and space, both of which cost money.
For some people going into journalism, losing the Oxford comma is like losing the religion transmitted to them by their ancestors and wise village elders. I have seen, for example, a quote on "Overheard in the Newsroom" where someone leaving the newspaper trade said, "I look forward to being able to use an Oxford comma without having my motives questioned." But I haven't taken it so hard. In fact, I think I've been pretty well converted to the AP style guide's point of view. And now I have that one more little, inky reason to be irritated with the know-it-alls who consider the Oxford comma an issue on the same level as freedom of the press, feeding the hungry and rescuing abused and neglected puppies.
The self-anointed true believers of English grammar consider the Oxford comma a mark of pure doctrine. But I submit they are really grammatical legalists, raising a parochial punctuation peccadillo to the order of dogma.
The presence or absence of a comma after the penultimate item in a comma-delimited list is not a unit of grammar at all. It is at best a convenience to the reader. Grammar is concerned with the transmission of meaning. The meaning is in the words, not in the punctuation marks. This becomes evident when you hear a list of items read out loud and understand it perfectly without reference to the Oxford University Press manual of style (or the AP style guide, for that matter). Sure, you might read aloud the words "Let's eat grandma!" with a different intonation than "Let's eat, grandma!" But that isn't what we're talking about. We're talking about a phrase like "Tom, Dick, and Harry" - a phrase which, read aloud, wouldn't sound any different without that second comma.
Sure, some telling examples have been held up for ridicule, like the lede sentence "This week's top stories are climate change, the Obama-Castro handshake and gay marriage" - but I defy anyone who sees the humor in that sentence to prove that they didn't understand its intended meaning. Read aloud it wouldn't sound any different. Adding a comma after "handshake" might redirect a mischievous reader from seeing the comical possibilities of the sentence, but the comma after "change" and the word "and" really should be sufficient to convince a reasonable person of the author's intent. If there's a possibility such a sentence could be misunderstood, whether read in the newspaper or announced by a TV news anchor, it's because of the word order and not the Oxford compliance of its punctuation.
If you want to ensure your writing cannot possibly be misunderstood, take more care about how you put the sentence together. The correct placement of a punctuation mark doesn't matter as much as sentence structure and word order. Begin by supposing there is a better way to express the intended meaning of your sentence; then look for it. A less-than-preferred style of punctuation may be irritating and distracting; it may play into the hands of satirical wags who enjoy nothing more than turning people's words against them; it may even give away a writer's educational or professional background; but after all, it's a matter of style and not of grammar. It's the lace frill on the sleeve of a dress, not the seam that holds it together. And only an elitist prig would plaster a "Not Done" sign on a point of style so fine that it is, in fact, done every day by some of the most intelligent and literate writers in our society.
|There are no words for this.|
Except, you know, "bullshit."
If you wanted, you could list the items thus: "love and joy and peace and patience," etc. A poet, for example, could arbitrarily insert or omit "ands" between these list items to make them fit his meter. No comma is necessary before or after any of these "ands," because each "and" serves the same purpose as a comma. It would be tiresome to insist on both a comma and an "and" in each instance: "love, and joy, and peace, and patience..." And this tiresomeness extends to the last comma in the list. Rather, it should be replaced thus: "faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
Based on my reasoning, to insist on a comma before that "and" would be like demanding a double comma or a double "and." And in the oral recitation of the list, such a comma would probably not alter the speaker's vocalization one bit - unless your reader is one of those hyper-literal types who interpret every dot on the page with a deliberate alteration of rhythm or tempo. Not every writer is e.e. cummings, nor is every speaker Victor Borge, but even if they were, the difference each comma in the list would make in their oral performance would be musical or impressionistic, not a difference in the meaning of the sentence.
Once upon a time literature was written with much less punctuation than is now fashionable. Also, writing extended much closer to the edges of the page and was more tightly spaced. Books these days, especially hardcovers and quality paperbacks, are so tremendously wasteful of paper and ink that they make my arm ache to hold them and my bookcase strain to contain them. And all this space-wasting design accomplishes is to spare the reader effort to focus on each line of text and move his eyes from left to right. Just as people's homes these days contain more and more space although ever fewer guests are coming over to share it, so also we are lavishing more empty space upon, around and amidst the printed word though fewer people are reading it.
If you really think we need to do something to save trees and cut down on pollutants, how about using less ink and paper? If the same book can be printed either as a tome fit to hold a door open or in a format that you can hold in one hand or even slip into a pocket, why are we still printing tomes? And if banishing the Oxford comma from one's style guide could shave lines off a newspaper story or pages off a book, why is it still wanted? In the spirit of "reduce your carbon footprint and stop saying stupid things," I would conclude: "Save the forests. Down with the Oxford comma!"