Skip to comments.Don't Kill the Oxford Comma!
Posted on 07/22/2011 10:38:30 AM PDT by nickcarraway
The university hands down a new edict about punctuation -- but the world's grammar nerds will never back down
Grammar lovers today were saddened, shocked, and mightily displeased at the news that the P.R. department of the University of Oxford has decided to drop the comma for which it is so justly famed. As GalleyCat reported, the university's new style guide advises writers, "As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write 'a, b and c' not 'a, b, and c'." Cue the collective gasps of horror. The last time the nerd community was this cruelly betrayed, George Lucas was sitting at his desk, thinking, "I shall call him Jar Jar."
The serial comma is one of the sanest punctuation usages in the written language. It gives each element of a series its own distinct place in it, instead of lumping the last two together in one hasty breath. Think about it -- when you bake, you gather up your eggs, butter, sugar, and flour; you don't treat sugar and flour as a pair. That would be crazy. That is why, like evangelicals with "John 3:16" bumper stickers on their SUVs, punctuation worshipers cling to CM 6.19 the Chicago Manual of Style's decree that "in a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction." So valuable is that serial comma that it's on frickin' Page 2 of Strunk and White, right after the possessive apostrophe. And it is good.
There are those who disagree. The AP and New York Times eschew it, and everyone knows what a bunch of hacks that lot is. Here at Salon, meanwhile, I can now reveal that for years one of our great roiling internal tumults was over the serial comma. Our house style, imposed largely by the recently departed despot King Kaufman, was opposed to it. I am, clearly, violently in favor of it, and have spent the better part of the last 15 years enduring the pain of watching our editors systematically remove it from my stories. Oh, how it burns!
Why, in a world where "M I RITE?" constitutes a legitimate conversational volley, would anyone care about an Oxford comma? It's precisely because grammar -- don't even get me started on spelling -- has become so expendable that it's conversely become so precious. A friend tells of a text she got prior to a first date with a new man that read, "I'm looking forward to seeing you, too." As she puts it, "A comma before the 'too'? Nobody does that anymore. I saw that and thought, 'I'm in luuuuuuuv.'"
I'm not saying the serial comma works perfectly before every "and." It certainly shouldn't be employed if you're not describing a series -- hence the term. If you're discussing "my friend, a gentleman and a scholar" and you're using "a gentleman and a scholar" to characterize your friend and not two other people along for the ride, a comma there would be a bad idea. But for clarity in list-making, for that sweet pause of breath before the final item in a group, the serial comma cannot be topped.
It's true that Oxford's new punctuation guide is only for its P.R. department, and it comes with the clause that "when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used." The university press, Oxford further hastens to remind us, remains "a commercially and editorially autonomous organization." But the prospect of the beloved Oxford comma being dumped by its own kin seems cruelly ominous. It's like Hugh Hefner saying he's no longer interested in blondes. And though you may think you've taken away our beloved little swipe of typeface this time, comma haters, the serial comma community is determined, tenacious, and resilient. We will keep sticking the comma into our sentences, and still sacrifice that one valuable character of our tweets in its service. We may still be reeling with denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, but you will never, ever have our acceptance.
UPDATE: In response to the outrage, Oxford University reassured distraught grammar fans today that its comma drama had been greatly exaggerated. Maria Coyle of the university's press office stated that the edict to eschew the serial comma was only for press releases and internal communication, and furthermore "is not new, it's been online for several years already." The Oxford Dictionary's site has also added a new blog post Thursday, reasserting its tough, pro-comma stance. New Hart's Rules live. Long live Hart's Rules.
D A M M I T!
I just wrote a 15 page essay on the serial comma for a linguistics study I’m doing, and now this! I’m gonna have to talk to my advisor about this one.
The horror is upon us.
Keep fighting the good fight!
Today’s lazy people no longer care about grammar(and darn little aboute grampa)!
Indiana has decided not to require cursive writing in school . But then I see more and more people who turn on a computer ,bring up Word, and then retrieve the printout from down the hall ,rather than sim,ply jot a brief note on a pad.
Stupid idea. ‘a, b and c’ implies that ‘b and c’ together constitute some combined set that is analagous to the set a. ‘a,b, and c’ denotes three seperate sets that are each analagous to the other two.
I couldn’t sleep at night, worrying about dropping the comma years ago, hoping I would never get called on the carpet by my editor. Oh, what a relief, it is.
The comma: Always a hot topic in the Publication’s world - I had to get cured of my excessive comma abuse many years ago - now I hardly ever use them - hyphens and dashes are like Methodone to me now..........
Apples, oranges, and pears.
Apples and oranges, pens and pencils, and cakes and pies.
I learned to drop the comma before the word “and” while in college journalism courses. Of course, this was contrary to my previous writing education that used the Oxford serial rule so it was a hard convention to break. Later, in graduate school, I had to re-learn the serial comma when using APA style for writing course papers. My right middle finger gets twitchy now when typing any serial list.
I have used the Oxford comma my entire life (never knew it had a name though) and will continue too regardless of what Oxford thinks about it.
How did Oxford come to own the comma in the first place ?
This comma use change will not shake the foundation of language. I will certainly divide “wonks” on what is correct for the next 50 years. I will be long dead before this change is so entrenched that it is in 100% use. I think it may NEVER be in use, people propagate what they learned, and I learned the serial comma. Most English professors and teachers will stick with what they know. Serial comma will be learned for a long time.
I sooo agree!!! Dropping the comma is stupid.
Well screw Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard.
Good point. I find that makes for easier reading, since it’s obviously a list of similar elements.
I am so glad I’m not an editor or an English major..I would be on anxiety meds.
Yes, along with the use of an apostrophe to indicate the plural of a noun, as in “cantaloupe’s” or “hand grenade’s.” Arrrrgh!
I would suppose that the comma after the word, bargaining, would be proper, as the words are not related. But if they were related, like in 'anger and despair, you don't need the comma.
I'm a comma abuser but I pair the last two items sans comma as the American response to British tyranny.
somebody has too much time on their hands...
"Hi, my name is hoosierham, and I'm a puctuation abuser...."
I was always taught never to use a serial comma, and never have. Glad to see the People Who Are In Charge Of Such Things came around to my way of thinking. :D
That said, unneeded punctuation can lead to grammatical aberrations such as: “Angry constituents told United States Senator, Harry Reid, to go jump in the lake.”
Eschew unneeded commas. Your keyboard will thank you.
They came and took away the commas but i did nothing because I wrote run-on sentences and had no need to separate my thoughts and ideas so my pillow is very comfortable. Then they took away the period but I did nothing because I only twittered - then they took away capitalization but i did nothing because i was a fan of a a milne butnowtheyhavetakenawaymyspacekeyandthereisnoonetohelpme
Except for that one. :)
People are too afraid to come across as dumb and uneducated and hence discounted so were forced to learn to write properly.
Going on geek overdrive...(warning, C++ ahead)
Comma operator ( , )
The comma operator (,) is used to separate two or more expressions that are included where only one expression is expected. When the set of expressions has to be evaluated for a value, only the rightmost expression is considered.
For example, the following code:
a = (b=3, b+2);
Would first assign the value 3 to b, and then assign b+2 to variable a. So, at the end, variable a would contain the value 5 while variable b would contain value 3.
I personally have never used the “Oxford comma”.
Step away from the keyboard...
OoPS. I meant to say ‘bargaining and depression’ needs a comma because the words are not related in the sentence.
How about the possessive apostrophe “s” for names or words ending in the letter “s”? Who said it was proper to write “Williams’s”, as in belonging to the Williams family? The proper way is Williams’. No second “s”. To me, as someone who has a last name ending in “s”, the former will never be correct. The nuns made sure I remembered that one, and God bless them. Perhaps elementary schools should go back to diagramming sentences.
Has — taken the place of ;.
Some people -.
Others—.but,;gives me fit’s.
I’ll try again.
Has taken the place of ;?
Some people -.
Others.but, ; gives me fits.
A subject near and dear to your English major heart.
I remember being taught the ‘new’ style way in grade school but as I got older I took up the Oxford style they now want to dump for exactly the author’s point about distinguishing elements versus pairings.
LOL. Me too.
Don't forget about that good old security blanket...the elipsis. I love that sucker.
I don’t claim to be a expert on Granmma.
Cuz, I know it will tic off Gramps.
Do you ever used Craiglist ads? Very entertaining and sad at the same time.
hangin head in shame....
Exactly! I always used a comma in that space. The dumbing down of the planet continues in earnest.
Dropping the comma before ‘and’ has been allowable for 40 years — depending on which usage guide one uses. It isn’t a new concept.
Lawyers for one thing are very particular about commas. A comma used or not used can very significantly change the interpretation of a contract for one example.
Gratuitously deleting the final comma in a series is yet another example of what I decribe as, Greshem’s Law of Grammar: Bad grammar drives out the good.
Despite decades of witnessing the horror of the new usage, even in newer school grammar books, I’ve never brought myself to follow this clearly foolish trend that obfiscates meaning. Oxford should maintain the King’s English rather than defer to the devolutionary grammar of the colonies.
Reading the Oxford decision, I haven’t felt this linguistically betrayed since the U.S. debut of the ubiquitous, long-running, grammatically-influential advertising jarring ditty, “Winston tastes good, like [sic] a cigarette should.”
Kicking out the clarifying, parallel comma is kicking out a supporting wall of Western civilization.
“How did Oxford come to own the comma in the first place ?”
They agreed to renounce the use of the tilde and umlaut, and traded two semi-quavers for it in the early years of the twentieth century, in an obscure clause of the Balfour Declaration. Like so many things in history, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Amen. That’s exactly what I posted. What a bunch of noisey bodies with nothing better to do. Wow...
I never used, nor do I use now, a comma before the "and".
For instance, I write, "I love oranges, apples and pears.".....or..... "Bill O'Reilly is a socialist, liberal, progressive, populist and statist gas bag."
Many moons ago I borrowed exclamation points from freeper Pete Kessler, and though I have used them profusely, abundantly and frequently over the years I still have many left. I LUV exclamation points! Thanks, Pete!
Punctuation marks, like paragraphs, are our friends!!!
I find that comma to be unneeded personally.
Eats, shoots & leaves.