“Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?
I’ve seen those English dramas too
So if there’s any other way
To spell the word
It’s fine with me, with me”
-Vampire Weekend, Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma, that tricky little punctuation mark that inserts itself insidiously into lists, most often unbeknownst to the writer employing it. This stealth little black mark also happens to be the bane of many an editor’s existence, as no real rule can be found that justifies its necessity. Its use, therefore, becomes a matter of mere preference for writers. This, of course, wouldn’t be as much of an issue if most people were aware of using it. But given that many writers are prone to utilizing it in one instance, only to slash it down completely in the next, tears at the very heartstrings of the more anal retentive and eagle-eyed editors who are constantly on the lookout for this sly punctuation point, simply for the sake of maintaining some level of presentability and uniformity throughout the work that they are, in essence, setting forth to improve.
Just what exactly is the Oxford comma you might ask? I didn’t know about it myself until I took up working at a newspaper, where I was trained to avoid it like the black plague, but once I discovered its existence, I felt that so many of my life’s questions were suddenly answered with this simple revelation. Why, why could it have not come sooner!! But I’m getting ahead of myself yet again…The Oxford comma–or serial comma as it is sometimes called–is the comma that fuses together items in a list of three or more through a coordinating conjunction. Take, for example, the following sentence: Bellatrix insisted on visiting the countries of Italy, Switzerland, and Greece while on vacation in Europe. The comma separating Switzerland and Greece is the Oxford comma. It can also be used to join together such coordinators as for, nor, but, or, yet, and so (notice the use of it again between yet and so. See! I told you it is unavoidable!).
In elementary school I was always taught to utilize the Oxford comma, although I did not know it by name at the time. I thought it was one of those strict grammar rules that simply is, for whatever reason, and which should not be questioned. I survived middle school and high school in a state that I could only describe as ignorant bliss, until I began my stint working at a newspaper, where I was suddenly made aware of this strange grammatical anomaly.
According to Lynne Truss’s bestselling grammar guidebook, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (notice the absence of it in her title), the Oxford comma’s usage is arbitrary depending on whom you are talking to and where you are geographically, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Ironically, it is more common in Britain to omit the Oxford comma, although its use is included in the handbook Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a usage, style and grammar guide written by Englishman Henry Watson Fowler in the 1920s. In America, on the other hand, it is more common to include it, although the Associated Press and most other publications (especially in print journalism) omit it. After all that, it is easy to see why it has become such a headache for editors and anal retentive punctuation/grammar freaks (a group of which I readily include myself).
The question of whether or not to utilize the Oxford comma, after all is said and done, really comes down to a matter of preference on the part of the writer/editor. With all that said, Truss still contends that one ought to be careful when debating its use at a party in the presence of mixed company. “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” Given that I’ve seen the horrors of papers and articles carelessly exploiting both structures (comma and no comma), I have become quite passionate on the matter, for the simple sake of attempting to maintain a certain level of consistency in a work. Despite my upbringing, which drilled the Oxford comma into me, I have adopted an anti stance against its use in recent years. At the end of the day, however, it becomes not a matter of right or wrong, but simply one of preference. All I can say on the matter is whatever you choose, please, pretty please, pretty pretty please, choose one and for the love of God, stick to it, not just for me, but for the sake of all those editors out there who may have sustained severe hair loss and/or premature graying as a result of such careless comma contrasts.
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