For example, writing "For breakfast, we had eggs, bacon, OJ and pancakes" is akin to writing
For breakfast, we had:Doesn't the list look wrong, raw, mistaken, or unfinished? It looks even worse if one bullet point is missing from earlier in the list:
For breakfast, we had:Even though there is a case for the final "and" substituting for the final bullet point, try adding a bullet point to the last item as well:
• and pancakes
For breakfast, we had:And ergo, each item in a list needs a (listing) comma between it and the previous item:
• and pancakes
For breakfast, we had eggs, bacon, OJ, and pancakes.The clincher is this: whether there is a final comma or not does not bother people who don't care about the issue one way or the other; while its absence does grate on those who do care about the issue (and about the visuals). Thus, making sure it is present turns out to be a win-win for everyone.
Now the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto brings in a teaser: Is a man named Miller being engaged to one woman (his girlfriend named Jody) or to two women (to one unnamed woman, i.e., his unidentified girlfriend, in addition to another, i.e., a woman who is not his girlfriend and whose first name we are notified about)?
Miller: "my girlfriend, Jody, and I were about to get engaged."I used to think that it was practically impossible to make a case against the listing comma (not just display a lack of interest in the li'l bugger at the end, not caring one way or the other, but make an actual case against it), but over the years I have seen one or two instances thereof, and one Wall Street Journal pundit, James Taranto, manages to do so:
We bring this up to make a grammatical point. The Washington Post does not use what is known as the "Oxford comma" or "serial comma." Thus you would write "bacon, lettuce and tomato" rather than "bacon, lettuce, and tomato."To be clear, I am not 100% convinced that the above amounts to an indictment of the listing comma, which I continue to champion, but it's an interesting perspective in any case.
In the case of the BLT that's a distinction without a difference. But look carefully at Miller's statement "my girlfriend, Jody, and I were about to get engaged." Without the Oxford comma, the meaning is clear: Jody is an appositive; he is identifying her as his girlfriend, then naming her. With the Oxford comma, however, the meaning would be ambiguous--an ambiguity on a slippery slope to polygamy.
I found a similar instance myself regarding a newspaper report on the Catholic liturgy many, many years ago, and if ever I find it again (provided I kept a copy), I will add it to this post.
Related: • Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!
Lynne Truss is the author of several other books, with Bonnie Timmons, from The Girl's Like Spaghetti (Why, You Can't Manage without Apostrophes!) to Twenty-Odd Ducks (Why, every punctuation mark counts!)…
• Should the Semicolon follow the diastole, the trigon, the interpunct, and the diple?
• The Case Against the Misuse and Overuse of [Square] Brackets (and Parentheses)
Update (cheers to Anne-Elisabeth Moutet):