Michaeline: Does the Oxford Comma Matter?

St. George, a free black, fencing with D'Eon, an 18th century transgender woman, at Carlton House in front of Prinney.

I pulled this from Wikimedia Commons for the fencing, but the story behind this pic is just too amazing to forgo for a clever caption. Read about it here: https://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/duel-of-the-outsiders/

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?

13 thoughts on “Michaeline: Does the Oxford Comma Matter?

  1. I like the Oxford comma, Michaeline, but I don’t think everyone in the world has to have it. The most important thing is to be understood, and the second-most important thing is to be consistent. Providing you do those two things, it isn’t all that important.

  2. I’m a fan of both the Oxford comma and those two spaces at the end of a sentence though I’m not fanatical. Writing so that you are understood, as Barb mentions above, is really the key.

  3. It’s my understanding that the one space thing came in with computers. In my college classes, they taught us (with much concern and emphasis) to use one space when using a word-processing program. I think the computer automatically made the one space after a period into two? And if you goofed it up, the formatting got really weird for copyeditors?

    Anyway, I believe I’ve heard that the modern word processing software will put in two spaces after a period whether you use one space or two. So, if you wanted something narrower for some stylistic reason, you’ll have to work with photoshop or something, LOL.

    I’m probably spreading false rumors . . . .

    OK, so this is a question: when you handwrite, do you purposely leave more space after a period than you do between words? I don’t think I purposely do it. I wonder if the whole rule had something to do with the way some letters are shaped. A capital T could overhang a period in a really weird way, for example.

    • The two-space thing is because (as I was told in business class in high school) typewriters typed in mono-space font (meaning each letter, whether an “m” or an “i” got the same amount of space), so to “tell” the eye that you were at the end of a sentence, use two spaces. I personally think this is irrelevant/unnecessary, because in Scrivener, I use Courier New, a mono-space font, and only use one space at the end of a period, and it doesn’t seem to faze me or anyone else who reads my manuscript. Plus, when I export it to Word or my Kindle, it has the right spacing for a variable-spaced font (like Times). You can set it up in Word to automatically convert two spaces to one, but before it did that, I’d always do a search/replace in Word for two spaces vs. one (yes, you can search/replace spaces).

      Fonts aside, I like the Oxford comma. Leaves no room for confusion about whether two things NOT separated by a comma go together. For example, “Hash, pork and beans, and cole slaw” is not the same thing as “Hash, pork, and beans, and cole slaw.” But that’s just me. When I copy edit someone else’s work, I don’t ask whether they want to use the Oxford comma, I just put it in. If they don’t want to use it, they can ignore my edit. I should probably ask, but truly, I forget. Then again, as a tech writer, I was raised with CMOS as my “bible” for copy editing. 🙂

      • Very interesting about the spaces! I’ve been meaning to google it for authoritative history (-:.

        Sometimes I see spacing errors quite clearly, but it really depends on the font and the letters on either side of the space. Sometimes things don’t look right, and it’s only my cursor that “proves” that there really is a space there (or too many spaces). Just for the sake of testing, here is what a double space after a period looks like. And here is what a single space looks like. And is it much different when I hit Submit? I guess we’ll see.

    • Right, Michaeline, the way computers do spacing in typesetting is that they figure out how many words go on the line, and then they take the remaining space and divide it equally among all the word spaces. So sometimes in a line of type you see a lot of space between words, including after periods, and sometimes the space is a lot tighter. But the space after a period is the same as the space between any other two words.

  4. I think it’s just going for fewer characters. Esp if someone is reading via their phone (like I often do). Each space is a bit and lots of bits add up. I remember, when writing user documentation, taking out the extra spaces could sometimes reduce the length of a document by a full page size (because of the way sentences, and thus paragraphs, were spaced). Taking out the extra spaces could make a 5-line paragraph into a four-line paragraph, which could then fit onto the bottom of a page, rather than being pushed to the top of a new one.

    • Oh, that annoys me so much! When one little dingly-dangly line of text is orphaned on the next page. Resetting the page size or the font isn’t always an option. Of course, if you use AP-style and still get a dingly-dangly, you don’t have any recourse such as, “If only I could cut the Oxford comma!” Or change the double space after a period to the single space.

      I’ll play around a little on Twitter, and take out spaces when I’ve overwritten, but that’s Twitter. In a real document, it means cutting words, or adding enough to make a decent amount of text on the last page.

    • (-: That’s OK. I love you anyway. And your writing certainly doesn’t suffer from the Oxford comma (-:.

      This whole Oxford comma thing showed up in a work discussion! Apparently our textbooks don’t do the Oxford comma, either. I will have to double-check this, but . . . . At this point, though, our students have much bigger communication problems than comma clarity. Some of our teachers, too, for that matter.

      . . . I wonder what the official stance is for lists in the Japanese language?

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