A direct quote from The Times newspaper, talking about a Peter Ustinov documentary and saying that:
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.
I apologize in advance for the rage and profanity. GOD I HATE THIS SHIT. You can just as easily conjure up an example where the serial comma will make the sentence ambiguous.
“The global tour included encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.”
This sentence is just as ambiguous as the previous one. The tour could have included encounters with three people:
1. Nelson Mandela
2. an 800-year-old demigod
3. a dildo collector
OR it could have included encounters with two people:
1. Nelson Mandela, who is an 800-year-old demigod
2. a dildo collector
Using the serial comma isn’t better than not using it, and vice versa. Both ways can create ambiguity. There are many different style manuals; some support using it, some don’t. Follow whichever one you’re supposed to be using. And if this is personal writing? It’s your preference! It doesn’t matter either way.
If the sentence is ambiguous, reword it so the meaning is clear. The writer of the article in The Times should have said:
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector, and Nelson Mandela.”
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector and Nelson Mandela.”
Either way, the meaning is clear. It’s not possible to mistake the commas around Nelson Mandela as an appositive phrase, and you can’t mistake Nelson Mandela for a demigod and dildo collector. The solution is not so straight forward as “use the serial comma” or “don’t use the serial comma.” Reword the sentence. That’s the difference between a good writer and an amateur writer (or a writer who just made a mistake).