Jilly: The Case for the Oxford Comma

Do you care about the Oxford comma?

A few days ago my husband and I found ourselves in a discussion about punctuation with the lawyer who prepared our wills. She explained the need for clarity in legal drafting, and highlighted the danger that a misplaced punctuation mark could completely change the effect of a clause. I don’t know what made me think of it, but in a moment of word-geekery I checked the draft will in front of me and noticed that the list of our potential executors (Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane) was written without a comma after the penultimate name.

I asked, and was told that this is the approved punctuation for a list of items or names: apparently the legal manual of style in England does not favor the Oxford comma. The discovery surprised me. If the lack of a serial comma can make nonsense of a simple sentence like “Susan organized a party and invited her parents, the Queen of England and Richard Branson,” (clearly Her Majesty and Sir Richard are not Susan’s parents), then surely, I thought, it would have the potential to cause confusion in some contracts.

I was curious, so when I got home, I spent some quality time on the interwebs and was tickled to find that the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued a ruling that hinged on this very point, Continue reading