I thought I knew all the obscure oddities of the English language until this little one was brought to my attention by a friend who knew I had an interest in such things (thanks Paul).
The Oxford comma, in its simplest terms, is an optional comma before the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list. It’s apparently known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers and editors at Oxford University Press. It is also known as the ‘serial comma’.
This concept of course breaks a basic rule of punctuation (or one that I was certainly taught) that the words ‘and’ and ‘or’ are commas in themselves.
The concept is best illustrated by sentences that uses it:
These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.
This sentence obviously alludes to a product that is available in three two-coloured versions. If you take away the comma before the third ‘and’ it becomes ambiguous and could be interpreted at being available in five versions although I admit this is open to debate.
In this one it is perhaps more obvious:
Cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies, and sandwiches.
The omission of the last comma would imply something unintended about the sandwiches.
The whole thing is, I’m sure, a rather small point but it is just another reason why I love the English language and all its peculiarities.