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Killing the ‘Oxford’ comma: Sloppy reporting as a new public service category.

July 1, 2011

The death of the serial comma, which got a lot of people hot under the collar this week, turns out to have been much exaggerated, the result, as such things often are, of lazy journalism. Long live the serial comma!

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Although a life-long devotee to the serial comma, I did not know until this week that Oxford University had somehow branded the thing. “Oxford Comma Dropped by a University of Oxford Style Guide” trumpeted Galley Cat.

But it was a classic case of getting a scoop by way of inattention to details. The very next day, Galley Cat posted what was essentially a retraction, “The Oxford Comma Is Not Dead,” though without apologizing for the error.

On the contrary, Galley Cat patted itself on the back: “We were proud to host this impromptu conversation about the craft of writing and we were inspired by the overwhelming response to this post.”

This of course founds a whole new category of journalism: Public service through lazy reporting.

The mix up arose when someone at Galley Cat came across a style guide for the Oxford University Public Affairs Directorate, forbidding the use of the serial or Oxford comma.

For those scratching their heads, a quick reminder: The serial comma is inserted immediately before a conjunction in a series of three or more items: “…a cat, a dog, and a horse.” Oxford University, as well as Harvard, and the University of Chicago, which produces the influential Chicago Manual of Style, all dictate the use of the serial comma.

Nonetheless, the serial comma has fallen increasingly out of use. That’s because the AP Stylebook, the usage bible for almost all American newspapers, forbids it: “…a cat, a dog and a horse.”

As shown by the ruckus that immediately followed Galley Cat’s erroneous posting, the serial comma has many fervent adherents. Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing at Salon, makes as clear and persuasive a case for the serial comma as I’ve ever seen.

While I’d never thought about it quite as deeply as Williams, I’ve always favored the serial comma, too. My reasoning wasn’t a matter of grammatical anality — I simply heard the pause for breath before the conjunction and the last item in the series.

It took my excellent editor at the Sun-Sentinel, Robin Berkowitz, some time and effort to break me of the serial comma habit  and to train me into the AP usage everyone else at the paper followed.

But I felt uneasy about the thing. It was also a matter of democratic equality: If the first two items in the series were separated by a comma, why not the last one? Unfair!

Shortly after the original post, Oxford University politely informed Galley Cat of the self-evident fact that the university press, where the serial comma is still observed, is an entirely separate operation from the Public Affairs Directorate, where it isn’t.

Generally I’m entirely permissive when it comes to commas — writers should put them where they hear them, I think. But this whole little contretemps makes evident that the serial comma is neither right nor wrong:

Smart writers and editors seem to favor it for formal writing — the Chicago Manual of Style governs academic writing — and disfavors it for informal writing. Newspaper writing is, by definition, informal, thus the AP proscription against the serial comma.

So the Oxford comma for term papers, monographs, serious nonfiction, and not for newspapers, public relations and other informal or ephemeral writings.

If that makes me sound like a grammatical permissivist, so be it. As the linguist John McWhorter illustrates so well in his 2001 book, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, all language is in a state of constant evolution, making it more permissive than a Halloween party at the Marquis de Sade’s house.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2011 3:22 pm

    Except in formal or academic prose, I always lean towards less clutter. Commas only if you believe you absolutely need them. Same goes for quote marks, semi-colons and !

    Also adjectives, adverbs and anything purple.

    The later Hemingway’s slather of conjunctions turned him into a writer’s writer parody.

    Don’t bend. Don’t water it down. Don’t try to make it logical. (Kafka)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 1, 2011 3:34 pm

      I agree, with the sole exception of the serial comma, which may be nothing more for me than a personal tick. I’ll never forget, when I began to read midcentury authors in earnest, back when I was a wee lad, how few commas they used. Flannery O’Connor and others of that time — if memory serves, they sometimes write a series with NO commas! I found it gave a certain wild tension to the prose, and it also showed me for the first time how the writer and his editor are governors of this evolving gibberish we call language.

      I highly recommend the McWhorter, by the way. Don’t let his conservative political leanings deter you. Reading Babel you’d never guess he leans to the right politically.

  2. Sean Piccoli permalink
    July 1, 2011 4:49 pm

    I’m a comma chameleon, myself.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 1, 2011 11:29 pm

      har-har, and secure in your ambivalence, eh?

  3. July 4, 2011 10:28 am

    Re commas: I’m with Duff and Robin Berkowitz (who also tamed me). But don’t get me started on semi-colons. They are the broccoli of punctuation.

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