In keeping with what I teach my clients, I’ll start with the punchline: Yes, you can and should use the serial comma. But you should also be prepared for your colleagues to insist on deleting it. For every lawyer who enthusiastically agrees with my recommendation, I've spoken to another who just as passionately disagrees (without any convincing reason, in my view).
Let’s back up. First, a definition: the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma, is the comma that precedes and
in a list of more than two items.
Here’s a sentence with and without the serial comma:
- Please provide all loan agreements, purchase agreements, and other contracts.
- Please provide all loan agreements, purchase agreements and other contracts.
We can all agree that the serial comma in the first sentence, and its absence in the second, doesn’t affect meaning. And that’s why many writers—especially those who detest excess commas—are passionate about omitting serial commas. In fact, senior partners at law firms seem to be united in their steadfast opposition to the serial comma.
But in some sentences, omitting the serial comma causes a genuine ambiguity. Consider these examples:
Wow. I hope they saved for therapy.
- This book is dedicated to my parents, Madonna and God.
Do all 3 people agree, or is John being told that Carlo and Stephanie agree?
- John, Carlo and Stephanie agree that we postpone the call until next week.
Does the new company provide:
- The newly merged entity will be one of the world’s largest providers of direct mail, customer forms and software and distribution services.
- (1) customer forms and software and (2) distribution services, or
- (1) customer forms and (2) software and distribution services?
Given the possibility that an omitted serial comma occasionally creates ambiguity, and given that ambiguity is problematic in legal writing, most sensible authorities take the view that legal writers should use the serial comma. And because consistency is king, we should use the serial comma even where it’s not strictly required for clarity.