Recently, several of my grammar-obsessed Facebook friends have shared humorous posts (like the one at right) about the Oxford comma. They tout this special comma as a tool any smart, literate person should use.
What, you ask, is the Oxford comma? It's a comma used before a conjunction when three or more items are listed in a series. In the phrase "Tom, Dick, and Harry," it's the comma following "Dick."
Advocates for the final comma, also called the "serial comma," argue that it can be all that stands between between clarity and ambiguity. They love to offer examples of the craziness that ensues when we don't use it. My favorite is this book dedication: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Two thoughts come to mind, here. First, how weird is it that an author would dedicate a book to Ayn Rand and God? Because Rand was an atheist.
The other thought is this: There's an easy way to fix the problem, and you don't need an extra comma. Just avoid placing the plural noun first in the series. To Ayn Rand, my parents and God. Or: To Ayn Rand, God and my parents.
Ta-da. Problem solved. But it's still a weird book dedication.
If I've failed to grasp something about the necessity of the Oxford comma, feel free to let me know. But my other problem with this whole comma dust-up is that it shifts attention from far more important issues. Among them: the raging epidemic of apostrophe misuse.