Comma sense

Cale Canter

In the song “Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend asks the musical question, “Who gives a (word deemed explicit by some) about an Oxford comma?” to which most of their fans pay no attention. At best, they wonder what an Oxford comma is. Maybe Google it. As a grammar guy, I actually have an opinion.

I’m an unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma (aka the Harvard comma, aka the serial comma). This is the comma before the “and” in a list, so named because the Oxford University Press first championed it.

I favor the comma because it balances out a list, giving each item its own weight. I regularly stumble over sentences without an Oxford comma, mentally pairing the last two items separately, as if they were a set. “Charlie loves Legos, reading, soccer and tormenting his brother.” Are “soccer” and “tormenting his brother” deliberately paired, separate from the rest of the pursuits listed? An additional comma prevents ambiguity. I do not like ambiguity.

However, I’ve never been radical about the Oxford comma. When I edit, I add it, but I don’t give it much thought. It certainly never occurred to me that the Oxford comma could be a bone of contention. So I was amused to discover that Facebook hosts a group dedicated to it: Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. There are nearly 2,500 members. As they write in their manifesto:

“The members of this group have dedicated their lives to the defense of the comma that separates the penultimate item in a list from the conjunction. Known as the Oxford comma after the university at which its use originated, this punctuation mark makes clear what might otherwise be an impenetrable fog of items in a series. However, some upstart group of riffraff calling itself the Associated Press has decided that the Oxford comma has become obsolete. They could not be more wrong.”

It’s always enjoyable to discover that a large group of people cares about something I hold dear (though I was a little alarmed that they had so much time on their hands.) What was most remarkable were the emotions this little bit of punctuation evokes. The comments of the group members display rebelliousness and superiority, as well as relief at finding others who feel this way.

There’s a sense among these writers that they’re a dwindling minority fighting the good fight. The fact that the Oxford University style guide now counsels against using the Oxford comma only emboldens them. I, too, bristle at attempts to declare an element of grammar “obsolete,” especially one that isn’t particularly archaic or awkward. As surprising as it is that so many would fight for its existence, even more surprising is that so many editors are dead-set on killing it. As long as the punctuation is consistent, is pausing for an additional comma really such a chore?


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