Someone has raised the subject of the Oxford comma again, because Sir Philip Pullman is on a tear that the new British Brexit 50p piece omits the final comma in “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”
It may come as news to participants in the endless wrangles over the serial, or Oxford, comma that this is not a question of grammar. Punctuation is not a property of grammar but a set of conventions, some long-standing, and stylistic preferences, which are mutable.
Our oldest punctuation mark, the period, has remained stable to conclude sentences and indicate abbreviations. (A more recent punctuation mark, the apostrophe, we have made a mess of.) But in the United States we use a period with Mr. while the British convention is to omit it. Using periods with M.A. or Ph.D. is a stylistic preference, as is omitting them.
In the United States, use of the serial comma is conventional in academic, legal, and other formal writing and is prescribed by the Chicago Manual of Style. Omission of the serial comma is common in journalism* and is prescribed by the Associated Press Stylebook, though even the AP Stylebook advises its use when necessary to avoid ambiguity.
Ambiguity is the banner proponents of the Oxford comma nail to the mast, citing examples such as “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” But, as Stan Carey points out in a post at Sentence first, there are also occasions on which the Oxford comma can increase rather than reduce ambiguity.
So we don’t have grammar to stand on for the serial comma, and ambiguity proves to be slippery footing. We are left with stylistic preference. People devoted to the Oxford comma think that it is precise and symmetrical. People who shun the Oxford comma find it fussy and superfluous. It takes all kinds.
Civilians—our readers—shift back and forth between texts that use it and texts that omit it without apparent strain, suggesting that the baying and braying about the Oxford comma is a dispute over a trifle.
I use the Oxford comma in my own writing, as at this blog. At work at The Sun, which follows AP, I omit it, except when it is necessary to avoid ambiguity.** Use it or not, as it suits you, in your own writing, follow your publisher’s house style, and get on with your life.
* I just assume that some publisher calculated that he could save $5.00 a year in lead by having his Linotype operators omit the final comma.
** Yes, this blog is also a publication of The Sun. It is not clear that anyone else at The Sun cares much, or notices, house style, so I please myself here.