Oxford Comma: Love It or Leave It?


Obligatory Vampire Weekend reference.

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.com made an impassioned plea in favor of the punctuation rule in response to a story broken by GalleyCat about what many thought was a change being issued by Oxford University.

Grammar lovers today were saddened, shocked, and mightily displeased at the news that the P.R. department of the University of Oxford has decided to drop the comma for which it is so justly famed.

The news being referenced comes from the the punctuation guide from the University of Oxford branding toolkit.

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’

Quelle horreur!

However, this grammar nerd “explosion” of denunciation apparently resulted from a slight misinterpretation of what Oxford University Press was actually stating. The rule itself isn’t being changed. The only thing that was being spelled out was an allowance for the Oxford University Press P.R. department to forego the punctuation in press releases and internal communications as was noted in an AP (itself a non-Oxford, or serial, comma house) story posted on USAToday.com.

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

This was clarified in an update on GalleyCat as well as on a host of other sites.

However, it still doesn’t change the fact that amongst various wordsmiths, this type of argument can be quiet heated (albeit, in a funny way).  This is described with the obligatory wordplay in the AP story lead.

A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.

See what was done there? Also, let’s not forget about the twitterverse, who today gasped with a sigh of relief over the apparent miscommunication.

@ElectricLit: The death of the oxford comma was exaggerated, misreported, and delightfully untrue

@GalleyCat: The Oxford comma IS NOT DEAD. I am happy, proud, and a bit sheepish about our role in the debate

All quite amusing, but all quite passionate as well. The band Vampire Weekend could never have asked for better, somewhat tangential, publicity.

However, while I find it entertaining and somewhat pleasing that there are people in such numbers who care about grammar minutiae, my own feelings about the serial comma itself are fairly diffident. I mostly used the serial comma through grade school and college, but then when I found myself dealing with AP Style writing more often in the workplace, I’ve changed over to leaving out the extra comma. To paraphrase Winston Zeddemore of the Ghostbusters: if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll write it any way you want.

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