Why do people get so worked up over the Oxford comma?
I’ve had time to follow Jennifer Crusie’s blog explosion over the past week or so. She tackled diversity, and then she posted about U.S. Politics. There was an explosion of comments, but most of them were civil, rational discussion about important issues, so perhaps “explosion” is too bloody of a word to use.
But then the discussion of U.S. Politics spun off into a discussion of punctuation . . . and then the gloves came off! I exaggerate; the conversation was still polite, but one could sense something edgier coming into play; lines were drawn in the sand and I thought I could see some glittering teeth peeking around commas and clauses. Maybe I was projecting.
What is the Oxford comma? It’s also known (like a criminal) by many names: serial comma or the Harvard comma. Take this sentence: “I watch YouTube, TV, and movies in my spare time.” The comma after “TV” is an Oxford comma – it’s the comma after the second-to-last item in a list. And it’s callled the Oxford comma because the Oxford University Press (in the U.K.) promotes it. The Oxford Dictionaries website explains here. Oddly enough, though, JaneB (a regular commenter on Jenny’s blog) mentions that the standard style in the U.K. is to delete the Oxford comma. She says it “reads American”.
The Oxford comma is also recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the stylebook used by most publishers and many magazines in the U.S. The Associated Press Stylebook (used by many newspapers in the U.S.) generally doesn’t use the Oxford comma.
Now here’s my disclaimer: the issue is very interesting. I love how important it is to many people. But honestly, I’ll follow the style of whoever wants to publish me. I want to save my battles for more important things, like odd words.
That said, oh, you should see the internet fights! Just google “cases against Oxford comma” and you’ll see both sides battling with crazy examples.
Business Insider’s Gus Lubin wrote an article called “The Oxford Comma is Extremely Overrated” and I think he makes some good points.
One of the standard “for” arguments for the Oxford comma are these sentences:
“We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.”
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
Oxford supporters argue that the second sentence is unclear; that people who live in some weird and very kinky world may think we are talking about only two people named JFK and Stalin, who happen to be strippers.
Lubin counters by making the stripper singular:
“We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.”
“We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.”
Here, the Oxford comma makes our stripper look like someone who is named one of the authors of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and s/he’s been invited with Stalin (who was probably rolled right out of his grave to attend this party). Or so it could be read by someone who has political fetishes and doesn’t know about the very strict rules of using appositives (my thanks to the guy in the BI comments who brought this up).
Of course, this ignores the whole point that these are HORRIBLE sentences. When the burden of clarity falls on one little punctuation mark that any stray bit of ink or fly speck can imitate, you’ve got a basic problem. As I’ve said before, the Oxford comma issue is not a big deal for me, but every time I see that example, my back is set up just that much more about the Big Bad Oxford Comma Supporters, and what they think makes a proper sentence. They seem to think the image of JFK and Stalin in garter belts and g-strings is going to be so terrible that people will do anything, including remember the Oxford comma, to avoid such an image from popping up. Well, some of the students featured in this Dallas Sun Times National article seem a little terrified. Perhaps it works.
But the real question is: should it work? Is the Oxford comma that important in good writing? No. It’s important to be consistent. And if you are writing books for U.S. publishers and the Oxford University Press, you’ll probably want to use the Oxford comma unless you have a Damn Good Reason for not using it. It’s simply a sign that you know who you are writing for, and you pay attention to the little things – chances are, if you take care of the little things, the big things will also be taken care of.
In college, I learned AP style, so when I write for the blog, I won’t use the Oxford comma. But I will think about it every time I’ve got a list of things to describe in my WIP. I would like to be a punctuation crusader, but the fact of the matter is, I’m not willing to draw a line over the Oxford comma.
How about you? Are you passionately for or against the Oxford comma? Or are you with me, on the sidelines munching on popcorn while the Comma Wars go on?