I wish we’d all use the Oxford comma.
Also known as the serial comma, this little mark of punctuation is the comma that appears before the word ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list of three or more items. It almost always functions to make a sentence more readable. And in the world of grant writing, readability — especially readability without having to use additional words — is necessary.
There’s some comma drama about its use because besides having a pretentious name, some people argue that punctuation should be used as sparingly as possible. It’s true that the comma isn’t always necessary for clarity or understanding. For example, in “Our organization is located in Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg,” there is little to be lost without the comma.
But here are three cases when using the Oxford comma would help your funders understand your point:
In the example, “Our program design is informed by our members, mental health experts and farmers,” it’s unclear whether the writer meant that the members are mental health experts and farmers, or whether s/he is talking about three distinct groups of people.
In the sentence, “The impact will be economic growth, low crime and diversity,” is the writer actually suggesting that low diversity would be a positive benefit?
When I have a longer sentence, as in the case of “The goal of the communication plan is to build participant knowledge and skills in online organizing, group facilitation, offering feedback, and increasing services for organizers and members,” I lean on the commas to make each item distinct, which makes the list easier to read.
Admittedly, there are situations when even a comma won’t help to clarify intent and it’s necessary to rewrite the sentence. This often happens when there’s a list of people with both names and descriptors. For example, in “We work with Jane Doe, a scientist and a policy analyst,” it is unclear whether Jane Doe is both a scientist and a policy analyst or whether the writer is talking about three different people. An Oxford comma doesn’t resolve the potential for confusion, because in “We work with Jane Doe, a scientist, and a policy analyst,” it’s unclear whether Jane Doe is the scientist or whether the scientist is a different person.
So, even though it won’t solve all of our problems, the Oxford comma often works to lessen confusion, articulate meaning, and increase readability. My point exactly.