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Writers Talk About Writing

Red Pen Diaries: Caring About the Oxford Comma

Last week we heard from Erin Brenner about the so-called "serial comma" or "Oxford comma." For a counterpoint, here is a spirited defense of the Oxford comma by Megan Zinn, an associate of our good friends at Editorial Emergency.

In the song "Oxford Comma," Vampire Weekend asks the musical question, "Who gives a **** about an Oxford comma?" to which most of their fans pay no attention. At best, they wonder what an Oxford comma is. Maybe Google it. As a grammar geek, I actually have an opinion.

I'm an unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma (a.k.a. "the Harvard comma," a.k.a. "the serial comma"). This is the comma before the "and" in a list, so named because the Oxford University Press first championed it. In one of my early professional writing jobs, the style guide stated, "We prefer the serial comma," and I took that to heart.

I favor the comma because it balances out a list, giving each item its own weight. I regularly stumble over sentences without an Oxford comma, mentally pairing the last two items separately, as if they were a set. "Charlie loves Legos, reading, soccer and tormenting his brother." Are "soccer" and "tormenting his brother" deliberately paired, separate from the rest of the pursuits listed? An additional comma prevents ambiguity. I do not like ambiguity.

However, I've never been radical about the Oxford comma. When I edit, I add it, but I don't give it much thought. It certainly never occurred to me that the Oxford comma could be a bone of contention. So I was amused to discover that Facebook hosts a group dedicated to it: "Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma." There are more than 3,700 members. As they write in their manifesto:

"The members of this group have dedicated their lives to the defense of the comma that separates the penultimate item in a list from the conjunction. Known as the Oxford comma after the university at which its use originated, this punctuation mark makes clear what might otherwise be an impenetrable fog of items in a series. However, some upstart group of riffraff calling itself the Associated Press has decided that the Oxford comma has become obsolete. They could not be more wrong."

It's always enjoyable to discover that a large group of people care about something I hold dear (though I was a little alarmed that they had so much time on their hands). What was most remarkable were the emotions this little bit of punctuation evokes. The comments of the group members display rebelliousness and superiority, as well as relief at finding others who feel this way. The outpouring is striking:

"I must confess that I was giving way. Family, friends, and professors had nearly beaten the comma out of me. This group, however, has restored my vigor. I am not a freak. I am a revolutionary. Huzzah!"

"Oh. My. God. *shudders* Every time I copy edit an article and have to remove an Oxford comma, I die a little inside."

"I thought I was alone."

There's a sense among these writers that they're a dwindling minority fighting the good fight. The fact that the Oxford University style guide now counsels against using the Oxford comma only emboldens them. I, too, bristle at attempts to declare an element of grammar "obsolete," especially one that isn't particularly archaic or awkward. As surprising as it is that so many would fight for its existence, even more surprising is that so many editors are dead-set on killing it. As long as the punctuation is consistent, is pausing for an additional comma really such a chore?

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Conventional wisdom held that in a print setting, all those "extra" commas added up, claiming precious column inches. As ink is rapidly overtaken by pixels, this argument loses its cogency.]

But back to Vampire Weekend: Why the invective against the Oxford comma? As it turns out, it was actually the Facebook group that inspired lead singer Ezra Koenig. Sort of. The words "Oxford comma" stuck in his head and eventually made their way into the song, which is less about the Oxford comma than generally not giving a ****. But as with many song lyrics, it just sounded good.

The Facebook devotees of the Oxford comma have their editing hearts in the right place and as a fellow traveler, I can't help but be charmed by their crusade. There are crazier people out there. Facebook also has a group called "If You Can't Differentiate Between 'Your' and 'You're' You Deserve to Die." There are more than 140,000 members in that one.

Megan Zinn is a writer, editor, and recovering publicist. Combining her love of writing, her knack for marketing, and her background in academia, she has developed a niche in higher-education marketing. She also embraces any opportunity to write about history, writing, and the communities around her home in Northampton, Massachusetts.


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Monday March 22nd 2010, 1:58 AM
Comment by: John M.
"John the butcher's son is dead." Who is dead, John ? The butcher's son?

"John, the butcher's son is dead." Who is dead now?

"John, the butcher's son, is dead." John is dead now. What killed him?

What caused John to die? Why, that last comma!
Monday March 22nd 2010, 2:06 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
How about differentiating between "a lot" & "alot"????
Monday March 22nd 2010, 2:52 AM
Comment by: Michele E. (Poway, CA)
Upholding the use of the Oxford comma reflects a respect for logical thought--something we could use a lot more of these days.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Scott S. (APO, AE)
Noel,

See http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/761667.html
and
http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=alot

There you'll discover that 'alot' is not a word. Now a lot of people use 'alot' to describe "a great extent or degree." I call this it a run-together idiom imagine if we did the same elsewhere like 'knockedup,' 'farout,' or even 'wassup.' My guess is that this is exactly how some words come into being. But I am no etymologist. Nor, I might add, am I a zoologist that studies insects--not that this bears any significance (except where my students are concerned).

There is another word, 'allot' which means to set something aside or to give a share of something. Military pay has long afforded recipients the option of alloting specified portions of their pay to designated recipients.

But allot really points up the issue with the Oxford comman. If I choose to "allot my royalty income evenly to my wife, son and daughter" should my wife get 50% and the children share the other 50% (presumably 25% each), or would all three get a third? Writing, "allot royalties evenly to my wife, son, and daughter" looks much more like they are to receive 33% each. There is no room for ambiguity in legal documents.

SAVE THE OXFORD COMMA!
Monday March 22nd 2010, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Naomi B.
Bravo for the Oxford comma! But might it be that the son of John, the butcher, is really the deceased party?
Monday March 22nd 2010, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Carlyn L.
Hooray for clarity that the Oxford Comma provides!!!! Several cogent comments above underscore this position which I have held since the onset of my grammarian status during HS, college, and thirty years of teaching writing.

Go, Oxford!!!
Monday March 22nd 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
Thank you! Thank you! I have always used the Oxford comma because no other arrangement makes sense; for one thing, using it gives the option of NOT using it when I want to make clear that the final two items in the series are a pair. O, the joys of subtlety, of minute and graceful distinctions! SAVE THE OXFORD COMMA, indeed!
Monday March 22nd 2010, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Timothy O.
I am schizophrenic. I learned to use the serial comma in school, but upon entering the advertising industry, had it beaten out of me. Like using two spaces after a period, it took a long time, and to this day, I sometimes find that my copy sometimes contains the serial comma and sometimes does not, sometimes in the same piece of work.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Mitch Powell (Laguna Beach, CA)
It's very difficult for me to learn that there are people who would work toward ambiguity in their writing. This troubles not only me, but my parents, Michelle Obama and Abe Vigoda.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 12:41 PM
Comment by: NaniJD (CA)
Well, the Oxford comma has now beaten out my (prior) pet irritation: it's for its. As an attorney, that little comma can lead to tears and years of litigation as the kids fight mom over the percentage. It isn't just about John, the butcher's son, and who died. (Or is it John, the butcher's son died?)
Monday March 22nd 2010, 1:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Quoting Mitch: It's very difficult for me to learn that there are people who would work toward ambiguity in their writing. This troubles not only me, but my parents, Michelle Obama and Abe Vigoda.

That's a great illustration of the problem. The Oxford comma is definitely required there.

Perhaps it's a case of using it where clarity requires it. If I'm writing a grocery list, I might not need it between the last two items: Get milk, bread, sugar, donuts and eggs.

I must admit, however, that the comman would make it look better!

Ah, Mrs. B, but you told us that was never a reason! Along with 'sounds better'.

And now...

Yes, former students, I am using both reasons, but selectively! LOL
Monday March 22nd 2010, 1:26 PM
Comment by: David D.
I was taught to avoid the serial comma because, they said, the "," next to the conjunction "and" tended to be redundant. However, the ambiguity problem soon caught my attention, especially if I carefully re-read something I had written. Since I am trying to make sense and not nonsense, I examine each usage and strive to be clear. Sometimes that works for me.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Valerie P.
I've given up getting people to agree with me. I taught my students to use it, and I use it. It is nice to know we are not alone!
Val
Monday March 22nd 2010, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Jeff (Hemet, CA)
Another vote for precise communication and clarification
Monday March 22nd 2010, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Frederic M. (Centennial, CO)
What's most important: Clarity of understanding ... or obsessive compulsion for being "right," which means slavishly following some proclaimed "authority?" The latter speaks of imbalance of one's identity linkages between the mental, emotional/spiritual, external, and physical aspects of who we think we are.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Peter T.
I prefer the Oxford comma's less highfalutin' handle: the discretionary comma. That name alone cooled much of the ridiculously partisan bickering over the issue in my company.

While I rarely use the Oxford comma, I’ll occasionally drop one into longer lists, or constructions that require extra clarity. I also take a live-and-let-live attitude toward it when I edit another writer's copy, though frankly I'm sometimes as jarred by its unnecessary presence as others are by its absence. When all’s said and done, the rigid insistence on deploying it every single time strikes me as both hyper-cautious and unwittingly comic—kind of like those guys who wear both a belt AND suspenders.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 6:25 PM
Comment by: Kathleen S. (Allentown, PA)
Dear Erin,

Thank you SO much! I was trained to use the Oxford comma, but when I became an administrative assistant, we were told NOT to use it. Whenever I did writing and editing I did in the office I would drop it, but in personal writing, I used it. Now I'll just leave it in, period (no pun intended)!
Monday March 22nd 2010, 8:57 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Having just edited a 70-page narrative of a German friend whose English is rather "quaint", I have now learned what to call all those extra commas I had to add before the "and". Hooray for the Oxford comma!
And the double space at sentence end...what year did it die? 1960's?
Monday March 22nd 2010, 9:19 PM
Comment by: Megan Z. (Northampton, MA)
My understanding is that the double space after a period ended with the advent of the personal computer. The computer automatically creates more space after the period than between words, so the double space isn't necessary.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 11:39 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
YAY! (Sorry!) I thought I was loopy! I suddenly seemed to become aware that no-one wanted my commas before the and. I didn't know it had a name and I really thought that I had been incorrectly taught. Now I know it is just one more of those things that seem to change with fashion. Thanks. Have I missed a lecture on the apostrophe? If not do we need one?
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Margorie, the apostrophe debate is never-ending. Have you heard about the demise of it from street signage in parts of the UK? Quite a fuss that caused, too.

I'm with Lynn Truss re the apostrophe. It's great, and needed, but only used correctly.

When I suggested that those changes might be coming with 'don't', I was just thinking of how language evolves. I'm sure that 'lets' and 'dont' will become acceptable, not by us all, but in general usage. Language moves in the direction of the spoken, and if there isn't a good reason (clarity) for keeping some things as they are in writing, the thing that doesn't add to clarity will go -- in time.

We'll still be using it as the contracted word will be firmly stuck in our heads, but I'm sure that the change will happen.
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Megan:
That is logical, but my feeling is that the demise of the double space ended with the "flower children". Anybody else agree?
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
Like anything else, change is inevitable. "Olde" English evolved to what we have now and who knows where we will end up - but I do wonder how much of it is caused by a natural evolution and how much by ignorance and laziness... It does seem that anyone quibbling spelling or punctuation these days is regarded as a dinosaur...
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
I have spent my entire academic career as a Professor of English teaching many college students the absolute necessity of the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma brings to writing that which too much of college student writing needs so desperately: precision and lack of ambiguity.
Wednesday March 24th 2010, 2:48 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Peter, are you aware of the study done recently here in Canada that reached the sad conclusion that most students entering first year (freshmen)were woefully ill-equipped to write coherent essays? Some seemed to find students wondering why 'U R gr8...' and such.

Sadly, I think of the days more than 30 years ago when I taught 'creative thinking'. (A group of students needed a place to park for a period or two a cycle.) We did many creative exercises, twisting brains in different directions. One of them was a sort of puzzle similar to what passes as the speech quoted above. It was rather special then, something done to see if you could create a different expression. Oh, did I cause this?

Those students, however, went happily on accomplishment, constructively so.

Now that it is called 'texting', how sad the situation is.

And how right the question raised by Marjorie about how much is due to laziness.

There was poetry to the music of my teen years. It wasn't classic, no. But it did say something to me. If there is something to be said in what passes for much of the songs I hear only smidgens of, I cannot discern it.
Wednesday March 24th 2010, 4:33 AM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
Jane, I am reminded daily of the losses in the language. Of course it is not new. Remember T.S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" [1915]). As I often tell my classes, we are awash in information, most of it absolutely useless without context, which is usually provided by history, of all things. Quite fortunately I can leave most of the teaching of grammar to the Writing and Tutoring Centers. I am fortunate enough to teach classes which require such knowledge as a prerequisite. (Not that my students possess it, but the prerequisite allows me to presume they do.) So I teach "content seminars" with much reading and much discussion. I am fully convinced that students will write better when they write about something they are passionate about. This gives them ideas of their own, and a sense of ownership in the ideas they write about, so they care about it much more.

That does not mean I do not come across the occasional "U R gr8" paradigm, nor do I avoid the "there, their, they're" confusion. That, I believe comes from collecting one's vocabulary aurally and not through reading. So I insist my students read, read, read: still the single best way to learn how to write with precision, grace, and style.

By the way, what would it take for me to be able to teach college English in Canada? I mean in the sense of immigration and all that.
Wednesday March 24th 2010, 3:12 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Assuming you have the PhD, I don't think there is a restriction. We came here from Michigan in 1960. My husband taught French at a small (then) college which didn't require more than a Master's from him, but all that changed eventually, though he was grandfathered along until retirement.

Citizenship is not a requirement, at least not to my knowledge. (It wasn't at the university level when he was active.)

I assume that the greatest task now would actually be finding a position. Times are tough here, too! But good luck, should you give us a try.

I taught junior high school for several years before citizenship became a requirement. On an exchange basis, of course, it would still be possible without at that level.

But provinces might vary...

Bear in mind that we are probably not any better at writing coherently than those you now teach, and you would have to adapt to some usage differences, eh? And spelling 'or' as 'our'. Simple, really.
Wednesday March 24th 2010, 6:27 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
PeterJ's comment, read, read, read is a good one but it is also important to read text which was correctly written in the first place!! I love finding old volumes from second (or third or fourth) hand bookshops and websites...
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 9:54 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Marjorie, I, too, am very much for your comment about natural evolution vs. ignorance and laziness. Being in close touch with 3 languages, I see a lot of examples of ignorance and/or thougtlessness in all of them, not least in utterances on Internet fora. This often makes me really worried. But then, I guess I am but a dinosaur.

Like you, I like Peter's recommendation - read, read, read - very much. Your stressing the importance of the correctness of what you read is valuable, too; my only reservation is this: while reading, I sometimes stumble upon experimental texts purposely doing funny things with the language. This is actually not for the worst - it is often quite enjoyable, and also provides me with a different perspective and makes me think - and choose. Not worst indeed.

As to the Oxford comma, it is a preference of mine for personal reasons. For me, it is just sooo English: of the 6 languages I have had a shot at learning, English is actually the only one that has it. I simply feel so proficient when I use it. Please, do not take this away from me.

And, as to the texting lingo, I do see quite some charm in it. The text-length limitations and the clumsiness of the input method do call for a measure of creativity. How else would a young boy I have heard of be able to send about 150 texts a day - not even bothering to take the phone out of his pocket? And that was in the 90s, long before the advent of intelligent dictionaries.

So, maybe, I am not a dinosaur through and through, after all.

Oh, and just a final remark: there might be a radical way to enhance learning the Oxford comma throughout the education system: Victor Borge's system of vocalising the punctuation marks. Personally, I find it irresistible; maybe, it will appeal to pupils as well.

Good luck!
Wednesday March 31st 2010, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Oh, Henryk, thank you so much for reminding me of that Victor Borge classic routine.

I wonder if it's available on the internet for download anywhere. Or is it still under some copyright protection?

My parents were big fans of his and took me to see him when he came to Bethlehem. At those concerts, he always did the punctuation routine. And then there was the record!

His talent shone in many ways, but that punctuation bit was extra special.
Wednesday March 31st 2010, 11:53 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
It is wonderful that so many of us have an opinion about all of this and that obviously those who are interested enough to opt to make comment are considering the rules... If one wants to break the rules one should at least know what they are first! My one thing is that often I have criticised 'incorrect' use of language and punctuation only to find that soon enough I have absorbed that incorrectness enough to begin using it myself. Fortunatley the Grandfather that once would have been hurt by my errors is no longer alive.

I have a very Yorkshire husband who is trying to write a book based upon childish exploits of the 60s wants to put the accent into his characters' voices and we are having great fun trying to work out how to do that without overdoing that...

Any thoughts?
Thursday April 1st 2010, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
From novels I've read with accented voices, the accent is carried through on speech consistently. Perhaps he wouldn't use it for all words, but for those he does use it, it should be used all the time, I think.

I'm not sure how that would be affected by Yorkshire speech. I've read a series of books set in Cornwall and it was done as needed. Beautiful!
Thursday April 8th 2010, 1:46 PM
Comment by: William D. (Fruitland, MD)
LOL For the 'if they can understand it, it's fine' writing style of most of us, we probably use this comma more often improperly. That and apostrophe's.
And to the commenter Noel "I call this it a run-together idiom imagine if we did the same elsewhere like", what? Now breathe. I missed something.
Sunday April 11th 2010, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Jane, this is an answer to your question concerning Victor Borge. As this may be somewhat off-topic, I considered just posting a link to what I have found - for everybody to enjoy - and a longer personal reply to you by e-mail to avoid polluting this space. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find your e-mail addres, so: sorry, everybody else - if I don't manage to make this short (which would be very much against my nature), I hope you will at least enjoy my findings.

I, too, was very uncertain as to whether any Victor Borge material would be available on the Web, other than as references to items for sale. I expected it to be heavily copyrighted - but I was in for a surprise.

Using the search string "Victor Borge punctuation", I found a lot of very interesting links to sound and even video clips freely available. Narrowing "punctuation" to "phonetic punctuation", interestingly, returned about 4 times as many links.

One of the first results on the list was this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7L02tCNi0I

It is a video of Victor Borge teaching Dean Martin his phonetic MUSICAL punctuation. It made me laugh uncontrollably and reduced the efficiency of my further research considerably.

There are lots more, in varying video quality (or is it my computer being too slow?); the ones on YouTube run rather smoothly and there are several more there than the search reveals. Some of the sites offer sound clips for download; with video, it is apparently not quite that simple, but I have recently stumbled upon a mention of a program that should make it possible.

There was another problem, and that brings me back to the comma thread:

While watching this one, which must be the original version (except for the fact that, obviously, it is not the oldest one: in some of the recordings, his hair is still dark!):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF4qii8S3gw,

I had a shattering experience: about 2 minutes 53 seconds into the routine, Victor Borge DOES NOT apply the Oxford comma. It may be due to it not being used in the text, but still. I guess this will have to be kept secret from future students, if any.

I apologise for my long delay, but, after having been unable to reply before Easter, I spent the whole Easter in no computer's land, just to wind up in no properly working computer's land on return home; that was even worse. In addition, the cursed thing swallowed my first reply to your question; I hope it choked on it. It is only today that I managed to make it work.

A final remark: I am lucky to live in Denmark, where Victor Borge is still regarded as a national hero, his memory still cherished, and his recordings available in most record shops. I still remember watching the celebration of his 90th birthday in The Royal Theatre, transmitted on national TV; a link to a recording of the event should be among the search results. And: guess who was performing...
Sunday April 11th 2010, 9:00 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Henryk! I watched the 90th birthday concert. Enjoyed every second of it.

He should be one of the UN Heritage 'sites', he is that great. I was watching him as a little kid.

I've a friend who will download those videos for me and send them to me on MS Messenger or Yahoo, the only way I can get videos well, being on dial-up.

Thank you for putting so much effort into that. I can find the videos, but cannot test them. I am very grateful!
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Jane, the pleasure was mine as well. Glad you asked and happy to oblige.

Yes, he should be remembered.

As to the videos: it might be easier just to buy them wholesale. Have you tried Amazon.com? My search on "Victor Borge" returned almost 400 results - CDs, DVDs, video tapes, and even books and audio tapes (no doubt you have noticed my respectful use of the Oxford comma here :-) ).

To make the search simpler for you, here is the link to show the search results directly:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Victor+Borge&x=0&y=0

If you live in Great Britain, amazon.co.uk would, of course, be more practical (and cheaper).

When on Amazon, I usually look at the customers' comments, trying to measure their expectations and idiosyncrasies against mine. It works well most of the time, but also takes time, especially on a slower connection.
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
You know, I didn't think that they would still be issued and 'in print'! I'll buy from Amazon.com. I'm in Canada, but usually choice is limited here for Amazon as there is no real Amazon outlet.
Wednesday May 5th 2010, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Clutter vs. clarity? I used to routinely add the serial comma for what I thought was clarity's sake for about 20 years of writing and editing. I was wedded to the Chicago Style Manual; they wanted it.

Now I see it as more additional clutter in writing, along with percent spelled out. Just as words go from two words to a hyphenated phrase to a closed-up compound as usage increases, so should we drop the serial (Oxford) comma unless clarity absolutely demands it. As Peter T says, no need to wear both belt *and* suspenders (braces to those Oxfordians).

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