Not that kind of cereal, but the serial comma.
A great example (via Making Light) of what can happen when you drop the serial comma from a sentence:
For those who don’t like to squint at small print, the newspaper caption to the above photograph reads as follows:
Merle Haggard: The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
The serial comma is so named for its function as the final separator of items listed in a series. Why it’s also referred to as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, I don’t know. The highly respected grammarian, Bryan Garner, recommends always including the final comma (even if journalists, for purposes of space-saving, often drop it). His rationale (p. 676 of the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage ):
[I]t’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will . . .
But that never is a bit controversial. Wikipedia, for example, claims the following:
In some circumstances the serial-comma convention can introduce ambiguity. An example would be a list reading:
- To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God
The serial comma after Ayn Rand creates ambiguity about the writer’s mother, leaving it unclear whether this is a list of three people – (1) my mother, (2) Ayn Rand, (3) God – or two – (1) my mother, who is Ayn Rand, (2) God. In this case, the writer might be best to reorder the sentence, and avoid the problem entirely.
Without a serial comma this would read:
- To my mother, Ayn Rand and God
– which is ambiguous only if the reader is prepared to accept the unlikely interpretation “My mother, who is both Ayn Rand and God”.
But I find this Wikipedia example inane, and am with Garner. So long as we treat the serial comma for what it is—the last divider of a series of items in a sentence—where’s the confusion? Why would there be any if you know the serial comma’s function? And dropping the serial comma from the Ayn Rand sentence does nothing to assist clarity in the way that the Wikipedia writer supposes. It only adds additional possibilities for ambiguity (insofar as there is any in the first place, which I would argue there is not if the serial comma is present).
And to retain the syntax, sense, and clarity that the Wikipedia writer desires, I would suggest a sentence like this (as an example):
I dedicate this book to the following: my father, Fred Astaire; my mother, Ayn Rand; and God.
Or, if Fred Astaire is not one of your parents, but Ayn Rand is:
To my mother, Ayn Rand; and God.
See how easy that was?
One additional thought about this. The “To my mother, Ayn Rand and God” example actually is not the best order in which to demonstrate the confusion that adheres to dropping the serial comma. The example is better illustrated in this order:
To Ayn Rand, my mother and God.
This makes the Ayn Rand devotee akin to Thomas after touching the resurrected Jesus’s wounds when he said, “My lord and my God!” Thomas, had he ever written a book and attached a dedication to it, might have dropped the serial comma without confusion:
To Jesus, my Lord and my God.
For the rest of us, however, the serial comma is wisely retained (unless we actually do mean something otherwise than a list of items):
To Ram Das, my guru and friend.