The Oxford comma (also called the Harvard comma or serial comma) is placed immediately before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, or nor) in a series of 3 or more items. It is optional, left to the discretion of the writer, but is generally used to avoid ambiguity. Apparently, it’s use is common in non-journalistic prose, standard in the US and, not often used in the UK, Australia, or South Africa. Without it, however, meanings of sentences can change completely. Look at this example:
“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister.”
“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister, and Finance Minister.”
Without the comma, the sentence reads as if only 2 pictures were taken.
You know this. Right? Then why do I mention it?
Well, it seems up until recently I have been using it incorrectly. Somewhere along the line, I learned to put the comma following the conjunctive. I would write:
“She took photographs of her parents, the Prime Minister and, Finance Minister.”
I was adamant this was correct. If you were to ask me, I would get into a heated, academic argument with you. However, I can not find any evidence that this is correct. Either my grade school teacher got it wrong, or I misunderstood.
Why didn’t someone correct me? I wrote a lot of papers at university. I have written a lot of business publications, emails, letters. Why didn’t someone notice? Maybe I am not the only one.
Do you use the Oxford comma, and if so, do you use it correctly?