Death, life and the Oxford comma (or not)

Comma by debaird, Flickr.com; blood stains from Clker.com

 

Let’s talk for a few minutes about overreaction.

Earlier in the week, the book industry site GalleyCat reported that the Oxford University public relations department had urged writers to generally avoid the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma, of course, is the comma that many writers use before the “and” in a series like “red, white, and blue.” It’s also called a serial comma.

It’s also far from universal. The Associated Press Stylebook suggests avoiding the serial comma for the most part (as I did in the headline above). The Chicago Manual of Style says use it, as does the APA Publication Manual. The New York Times stylebook says avoid it.

And so it goes. The serial comma is governed by style, a set of guidelines we use to make writing consistent.

Except that the Oxford comma seems governed by emotion – lots of emotion.

GalleyCat reported that within hours of its original post, “thousands and thousands of readers had launched a passionate debate about the future of the Oxford comma.”

That was an understatement. “Don’t kill the Oxford comma!” Salon screeched. On Twitter, you’d have thought someone had declared war on baby kittens. For instance:

“Never trust an enemy of the Oxford comma.”

“You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.”

It all made for amusing reading. I had fun, too, tweeting, “Oxford the university does away with Oxford the comma. No word on what Oxford the style manual will do.”

Oxford University Press, which issues the style manual, said that it had no interest in doing away with the Oxford comma.

So the hordes were forced to lower their pitchforks.

I’m always heartened to see people passionate about language. Language helps define who we are. It deserves special care and attention – even passion once in a while. Just don’t let the passion get in the way of lucid thought.

Here’s my thought: Use the Oxford comma, or don’t, but be consistent. If you choose not to use it most of the time, remember that there are times when you still should. As with all writing, the goal is clarity.

As the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, style “should encourage thinking, not discourage it.”

It adds, “A single rule might suffice: ‘The rule of common sense will prevail at all times.’ ”

What a concept.

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