Rosky Legal Education

It’s that time of year – the new associates have landed, and they are busy trying to get a handle on the firm’s rules, both written and unwritten. When it comes to legal writing, associates may be baffled by firm—or partner—style preferences that contradict the “rules” set forth by authoritative style guides.
No style issue is the subject of more contradictory advice and opinion than the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma. Read on to get the definitive scoop on this hotly contested squiggle of ink.

Dianne Rosky

Who Gives a *%$& About the Serial Comma?

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 or or 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:
  • This book is dedicated to my parents, Madonna and God.
Wow. I hope they saved for therapy.
  • John, Carlo and Stephanie agree that we postpone the call until next week.
Do all 3 people agree, or is John being told that Carlo and Stephanie agree?
  • The newly merged entity will be one of the world’s largest providers of direct mail, customer forms and software and distribution services.
Does the new company provide:
  • (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.
I’ve given you the ammunition for your battle to save the serial comma. But I admit, I’m not optimistic that you’ll convince many corner-office partners to change their ways. Good luck with that!

(1) Superheroes:
(2) Cereal Comma:

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Recommended resource

For more scoop on the hoopla surrounding the serial comma, check out these delightful diversions.

First, Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight fame, has offered his statistician's take on the serial comma jurisprudence. Check out his survey results here.  

Second, Online Schools has produced an enchanting infographic that lays out both sides of the debate and summarizes just about everything worth knowing about the serial comma, including which major style guides are pro and con.

Finally, many of you may know that the band Vampire Weekend has a song called Oxford Comma, the refrain of which is, "Who gives a f*** about the Oxford comma?" Check out the music video here

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