The xoJane Punctuation Wars: You Will Pry My Oxford Comma From My Cold, Dead Hands

As any editor can tell you, writers are willful and mercurial creatures who rarely, if ever, pay any attention to editorial mandates.
Publish date:
April 19, 2012
meta, damn the man, grammar, oxford comma RULEZ, nerdiness, punctuation

Those who follow @msemilymccombs and @sesmithwrites on Twitter are periodically subjected to a bout of robust debate over the Oxford comma. It’s all in good fun -- at least on my end -- but it can get pretty brisk. The most recent round expanded to the correct way to spell “colour” and then Jane weighed in, informing us that xoJane contributors should use their native spellings.

I told her she’d unleashed a monster.

And then asked if I could use the Oxford comma.

The official xoJane stand on the Oxford comma, also known as the serial or Harvard comma, is that we aren’t allowed to use it -- unless it would clear up an ambiguity. This is per the official AP style guidelines, which we are ostensibly supposed to follow. But as any editor can tell you, writers are willful and mercurial creatures who rarely, if ever, pay any attention to editorial mandates.

Case in point: I grew up using the Oxford comma, and it’s really hard to train myself out of using it. Consequently, I go back over pieces to take it out in order to spare Emily the trouble, but every now and then I miss one.

And I cackle with joy when the piece goes up with my precious comma intact.

So, like, that’s the big deal with the Oxford comma? If you’re sitting here going “What the hell IS an Oxford comma,” well, I’m despairing right now; you just can’t see it. Well, actually, you can:

Shocked and appalled, I tell you.

The Oxford comma is placed before “and” in a list, a la: “I went to the vet for antibiotics, cat treats, dewormer, and the results of Loki’s blood test.”

AP style says you don’t need the serial comma in this list because there’s no ambiguity when you say “I went to the vet for antibiotics, cat treats, dewormer and the results of Loki’s blood test.”

You are, however, allowed to use it if a sentence might be confusing: “At the diner, we ordered coffee, orange juice, fruit salad, pancakes, ham and eggs, and toast.” This makes it clear that the ham and eggs go together, not the eggs and toast.

Purists might argue that you could move the elements in the sentence around to resolve the problem: “At the diner, we ordered coffee, orange juice, ham and eggs, fruit salad, pancakes, and toast.” This is an entirely legitimate approach, but why do that when you can just add in a serial comma?!

Another example illustrating problems with ambiguity: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” a fictional book dedication used by Teresa Nielsen Hayden to explain how and where to use the Oxford comma.

There’s some doubt about who is who there! So you want to say “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God,” to make it clear who you're talking about, unless your parents are Ayn Rand and God. Also, why are you dedicating a book to Ayn Rand?

In this classic example of the importance of the Oxford comma, the AP would actually support its use, because it would eliminate ambiguity:

You can see why these distinctions matter, yes?

The AP is also down for the serial comma when it involves a complex series that might be clarified by use of the comma: “Any honest evaluation of the show has to consider a number of issues, including the technical skill demonstrated by the artists, the style and tone of the subject matter, the reaction of members of the audience, and the historical context of the work.”

There are, of course, cases where even an Oxford comma can't save you, because a sentence can be interpreted several different ways: “I went to visit Emily, a lady, and a collector of penis bones.” I might have been visiting three people here, or just one; Emily, a lady who collects penis bones. (That's bacula for all you scientists out there.)

As I often say on Twitter, “Give me my Oxford comma or give me death!” When I’m not saying “me+Oxford comma FOREVAH,” that is. We get pretty hardcore about our love of this teensy bit of punctuation, y’all.

My die-hard attachment to the Oxford comma has its roots in two things:

1. It’s what my daddy taught me. And as we all know, daddy knows best. Also, daddy has been teaching college English for close to 20 years.

2. I like consistency. Rather than debate over whether I should or want to use it, I’d rather just use it everywhere. Grammar Girl supports this approach!

Most of the style guides opposing the Oxford comma are news organisations, and the decision not to include it may have been a matter of space. I sympathise, I do, because I’ve worked in a letterpress shop and I know how unendurably frustrating it is to hit the end of a line only to realise that it doesn’t quite fit by one measley comma. And then you have to get all jiggy with the kerning or bump the slug up a size and you want to cry and stomp and a small part of you thinks “Screw it, let’s just ditch the comma.”

The magic of letterpress.

So it’s entirely possible that newspapers started working without the Oxford comma when possible to save space -- similar kinds of space-saving tools can be seen in other newspaper style guidelines -- but I think we’re over it at this point. No major newspaper is handsetting type, let alone using a linotype machine. It’s all digital, baby, and that means that not only is real estate not at a premium, but adjusting kerning can be done in the blink of an eye.

Here on xoJane, it’s clear that a comma (or not) isn’t going to totally eat up column inches and result in chaos in editorial. Likewise with any other publication following AP guidelines. The question is: Why hasn’t the AP gotten with the digital age?

I’m afraid that if they don’t see the light soon, the grammar fisticuffs are going to graduate to grammar wars.