What is a serial comma, and when to use it: Strippers, JFK, and Stalin

What is a serial comma?

First off, what is a serial comma (aka the Oxford comma)? It's the comma that comes after the penultimate item in a series of three or more, as in: I like gladiolus, surfing, and sushi.

Why is the serial comma important in legal writing? 

In the above sentence only the daftest of individuals would likely be confused if you left out the serial comma; however, there are cases where, without the serial comma, ambiguity rears its ugly head. 

For example:

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If the thought of Stalin in pasties isn't enough to convince you, consider a slightly less dazzling example: I want to leave my estate to my children, George, and Gracey. Without the serial comma, this would indicate my children are named George and Gracey. With the serial comma, it's clear that George and Gracey are entities separate from my children.

When not to use a comma before and or or

Even I, perhaps one of the serial comma's most ardent devotes, hasten to remind you that there are instances when you should not blindly add a serial comma before every and and or that crops up in your legal writing. In the example above, if George and Gracey really are my children, adding a comma only creates confusion. Note that in this instance a comma after George is not actually a serial comma, as the series (of children) only consists of two items.

If you'd like help with this or other grammar issues in your legal writing, please contact us.