Apparently the serial comma is now considered an archaic form of punctuation.
I have to say I disagree. Very strongly.
The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is defined by Wikipedia as “the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items.”
There are several examples listed in the Wikipedia article, but I think most people who read will be familiar with the situations in which a serial comma is used.
Example: I bought three books, two pencils, and a pen.
Now according to those who regard the serial comma as outdated, that sentence should be punctuated thus:
I bought three books, two pencils and a pen.
It may look odd, but that example in and of itself isn’t a bad sentence, nor is the meaning impossible to figure out. However take a look at this sentence- based off some examples in the Wikipedia article, for those who have an aversion to links.
Example: The train carried only a few passengers: a soldier, butcher, baker and candlestick maker.
You have to think for a bit about whether or not the baker is also a candlestick maker or whether the candlestick maker refers to someone else entirely. Now I’m not saying that’s the best example, as it could clearly use revision to make its meaning more clear. However it does illustrate the problem of omitting the comma at the end of a sentence.
The most prominent arguments I’ve seen against the serial come from journalists, who don’t use it because of column space requirements, and those who argue that in other languages the serial comma is incorrect.
Now as a journalism major, I understand why the serial comma is omitted in that kind of writing. I do feel that this practice is one that should be reconsidered with the rise of online media, where physical space on paper is no longer as much of an issue as it has been in the past. But I do comprehend the reasoning behind leaving it out.
The argument that other languages list the serial comma as incorrect, however, is frankly ridiculous.
Now I’m not trying to suggest that English is somehow superior when I say that this argument shouldn’t affect the serial comma. What I’m saying is that writers who are writing in the English language should adhere to the conventions of that language. If a work is being translated, the differences in grammar and structure will ideally be fixed, including any comma seen as unnecessary.
So why make English grammar any more confusing than it already is by throwing in standards of other tongues? That seems rather counterproductive to good communication. American readers especially are trained to see the comma as an indication of separation in a list, and when that separation isn’t there, they’ll assume the last two items in the list are a unit in some way. In short, leaving off the comma at the end of the list makes the information of that list more imprecise. And I think in a time where language is becoming increasingly important, given the flood of online writing and news in our age, we should take care to be precise as possible in writing. I’m not saying that civilization will collapse if the serial comma is neglected, but I do think communication will suffer a bit. I don’t like the thought of that happening; the rise of texting and email has already slackened our standards of writing at an alarming rate. Why add another pebble to the avalanche?