Culture And Criticism

Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe ... For Now

A comma. i i
iStockphoto.com
A comma.
iStockphoto.com

I have a confession.

I am only too happy to emphatically defend split infinitives against the accusation that they are offensive in any language except Latin. I believe perfectly marvelous sentences can end with prepositions or begin with "and."

I make up words, I write in fragments, I am absolutely not a flawless user of any kind of punctuation, I make noises in the middle of my own writing (like "AAAAARGH!"), and I often like the rhythms of sentences more than their technicalities. Run-on sentences amuse me. I frequently give the impression that the American Parentheticals Council has me on retainer, or that I am encouraging a bidding war between Big Ellipses and Big Dashes to see which will become my official sponsor. ("Dashes: The Official 'And Another Thing' Punctuator Of Monkey See.") I write "email" without a hyphen, I am a big fan of the word "crazypants," and my plan is to master "who"/"whom" only on my deathbed, as my ironic dying gift to absolutely no one, since there will be no one left to hear me.

And yet, even the rumbling of a distant threat to the Oxford comma (or "serial comma") turns me instantly into an NFL referee, blowing my whistle and improvising some sort of signal — perhaps my hands clasped to my own head as if in pain — to indicate that the loss of the serial comma would sadden me beyond words.

This blew up yesterday when there was a rumbling that the University of Oxford was dumping its own comma. As it turned out, this wasn't the case. They haven't changed their authoritative style guide, but they've changed their internal PR department procedures that they use for press releases. The PR department and the editorial department are two different things, so this doesn't necessarily mean much of anything, except that it's maybe a little embarrassing to have the PR department of the university with which you're affiliated abandon your style guide.

For those of you who enjoy the outdoors and would no more sort commas into classes than you would organize peanut butter jars in order of viscosity, the serial comma — or "Oxford comma" — is the final comma that comes in a sentence like this: "I met a realtor, a DJ, a surfer, and a pharmaceutical salesperson." (In this sentence, I am on The Bachelorette.) I don't typically use the serial comma here on the blog, because NPR uses AP style, which is standard for most news organizations. AP style leaves out the serial comma unless it's particularly necessary. It would dictate writing that sentence as: "I met a realtor, a DJ, a surfer and a pharmaceutical salesperson." That's what I do at work. At home, though? In correspondence, in notes to myself, in writing on cakes with icing? Serial commas. Forever.

Whether the serial comma is used is usually not a big deal — you see lists every day both with it and without it, and it won't hang you up either way. "Please buy bread, cheese, butter and milk." "Please buy bread, cheese, butter, and milk." Either is fine.

But when it matters, it really matters.

Suppose that instead of the list of men our bachelorette met above, things went differently. Without the serial comma, she might say: "The best available men are the two tall guys, George and Pete." There, you really don't know whether George and Pete are the tall guys, or whether there are two tall guys in addition to George and Pete. You literally don't know how many men you're talking about, and while that level of confusion as to elementary facts seems like something that might actually happen on The Bachelorette, it is unfortunate in other settings. If, on the other hand, you use the serial comma, then you would write that sentence only if you meant that George and Pete were the tall guys, and if you didn't, you'd say, "I met two tall guys, George, and Pete."

Two men have just been created by that comma out of whole cloth. Boom! We've created life! Don't you feel like Dr. Frankenstein?

It's perhaps not surprising that a comma that can singlehandedly create human beings can also get people pretty wound up. Twitter went bazoo over the entire Oxford business yesterday, particularly before the clarification was made that it was just the PR department. People — people like me — love the serial comma. They rely on it. They feel like society's abandonment of it is a sign that all has gone haywire. They feel about it the way other people feel about newspapers, green spaces, or virtue.

The balancing act between how much rule-making you like in language and how much you like language to evolve naturally isn't necessarily the point of the serial comma debate (to me, the reasons to keep it have absolutely nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with actual utility), but that's where almost any discussion of almost any arcane point invariably winds up. Language is alive, you see, and it changes, and its beauty lies in its ability to be shaped by an entire society that calls upon its collective wisdom and experience to create a means of communication that accomplishes what it needs to AND NO THAT DOESN'T MAKE "IRREGARDLESS" OKAY AND STOP USING "LITERALLY" TO MEAN "FIGURATIVELY" I AM BEGGING YOU.

Uh-oh.

I firmly believe all of that good stuff about our living language, and yet I accidentally hit my own nerve. Love of language, it turns out, is a complicated minefield of things you care about and things you don't, and one person's explosive issues are obviously no more valid than anyone else's. Some people hate Capitalization For Cutesy Point-Making in exactly the same way I hate "irregardless," but I use it happily. Not as much as I once did, but I do. (Don't email me about "irregardless" or "literally," by the way. I glare at your spineless, weak-kneed dictionary with a judgmental, squinty eye. I do! I glare at it!)

For now, the Oxford comma lives on at Oxford. And it lives on in my heart. Life is nasty, brutish, and short (or, to introduce unnecessary ambiguity, "life is nasty, brutish and short"), and the least I can do for myself is to hold tight to the linguistic niceties about which I, for whatever reason, care. It's comforting. It's calming. And when it comes to taking a firm position about mostly unimportant debates, that's about all I can hope for.

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