Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

The great comma debate

sprovost@thetribunenews.comMarch 7, 2014 

Steve Provost

I’m a serial killer — a serial comma killer, that is. The moment I became a journalist, I automatically enlisted on one side in a bitter and protracted war over whether or not to use the serial comma, otherwise known as the Oxford comma. We newspaper copy editors are oathbound to seek and destroy these infiltrators, regardless of any countermanding orders from English professors and defenders of classic literature.

My wife and I agree on most things, and we’re civil with each other when we don’t. We’re civil about the Oxford comma, too, but it has proved to be an interesting topic of discussion.

“If I don’t use it,” she says, “the sentence seems wrong and jarring.”

As a journalist, I’ve been drafted into the no-comma army, but as an author, Samaire belongs to the opposite camp — the literary camp. She both uses and defends the Oxford comma, though she’s never been to Oxford or even Cambridge. To be fair, neither have I.

But regardless of one’s geographic location, the Oxford comma is ground zero when it comes to the fight for linguistic purity.

As in most wars, both sides consider themselves the true purists.

The Oxford comma is that little piece of punctuation that rears its ugly (or gorgeous, depending on one’s perspective) head before the final conjunction in a list of three or more items.

For example: “Before venturing out into the winter cold, it’s wise to bundle up in a heavy coat, gloves, a scarf, and a hat.”

Everyone agrees the commas after “coat” and “gloves” are necessary. Where the dispute lies is in that final comma, the one after “a scarf.”

The use of this comma, the Oxford comma, dates back more than a century and can be traced to guidelines issued by the Oxford University Press.

Yet today in Britain, home to the venerable university, many people don’t use the serial comma. The Queen’s English Society frowns upon its use, as do The Times and The Guardian newspapers. Even Oxford itself seems conflicted on the issue. Its public affairs style guide notes that “there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and the ‘and/or,’ unless required to prevent ambiguity.”

In Australia, that farflung land down under where the sun never sets on the British Empire, the government likewise opposes its use.

Indeed, the fiercest defenders of this originally British mandate appear to be on this side of the Atlantic: The Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Manual and The Elements of Style all recommend its use.

On the other hand, the Associated Press stylebook, from which many journalists take their marching orders, decrees that the comma is unnecessary, unless it’s used to clear up ambiguity.

For instance: “Extend my compliments to the chefs, Juliette and Crandall” means something very different than “Extend my compliments to the chefs, Juliette, and Crandall.” In the first example, Juliette and Crandall are the chefs. In the second, they’re different individuals. The Oxford comma changes the meaning entirely, and its presence (or absence) is crucial to the meaning.

Beyond this, there are pros and cons to using it.

On the positive side, commas can be used to indicate a pause. If you’re curious, write out a list and then speak it aloud. Chances are you’ll pause briefly before uttering that final word.

On the other hand, the Oxford comma is, technically, redundant. Every other comma in a list is used to replace the word “and.” So if you add a comma before the last “and” in the sentence, you’re repeating yourself.

There are good arguments to be made in support of either position, but each side is passionate about the matter and there’s no middle ground. Things become especially challenging for me when I find myself editing a newspaper story one day and my wife’s latest novel the next.

Talk about confusing. That’s when you have to become a comma chameleon.

Ouch. Did I just say that?

SteveProvost is a Tribune copy editor.

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