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Is it unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one?

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 5 july 2011

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This article titled “Oxford commas? Let common sense prevail” was written by David Marsh, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 4th July 2011 09.15 UTC

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? asked Vampire Weekend. Quite a few people, it turns out, including the entire population of the United States (or the significant proportion thereof that uses Twitter).

The horrified reaction to last week’s much retweeted, if inaccurate, claim that “Oxford University is abandoning the Oxford comma” was led by Americans alarmed at this new threat to the special relationship. This is unsurprising, as traditional US language guides, from the worthy but dull Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to the dull but worthy Chicago Manual of Style, regard the Oxford (or serial) comma – the last in a list, immediately before the word “and” – as mandatory.

Indeed it is No 2, no less, in Strunk & White’s “elementary rules” of usage: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” To true believers in this maxim, a flag that you or I might regard as red, white and blue is in fact red, white, and blue. (The rule has the potential to introduce enough unnecessary pauses to your prose to make a shopping list read like something by Pinter.)

The furore led many people to assume that Oxford University Press, champion of the eponymous comma, had changed sides – a typical reaction was “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals” – but, as ends of the world go, the truth was distinctly un-apocalyptic. It turned out that a writing guide produced some time ago by the university’s public affairs directorate for press releases and internal communication had advised: “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.”

It added, however, that such a comma might help clarify a sentence or resolve ambiguity, especially where an item in the list was already joined by ‘and’. This sensible advice is similar to the Guardian style guide approach: “Straightforward lists (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need a final comma, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea).

The guide goes on to say – and I honestly can’t remember if I made up this joke, or stole if from elsewhere – “Sometimes it is essential: compare ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ with ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.”

In a characteristically thoughtful piece on his Sentence first blog, Stan Carey quotes the example “encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”, pointing out that an Oxford comma after “demigod” would only introduce another ambiguity (is Mandela a demigod, a dildo collector, a demigod and a dildo collector, or none of the above?).

In short, it’s as unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one. The best rule is common sense.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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