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.