Who Gives A Fuck About An Oxford Comma?

In response to Vampire Weekend’s question: I do. At first only because I was paid to, but before long I came around to the Oxford comma’s way of thinking, and now cannot stand to see it absent. For the uninitiated, said comma is used immediately before a co-ordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items (as illustrated in the picture above); it was introduced to aid clarity and to improve the flow of potentially cluttered sentences. However, people have argued over its usage since it first appeared.

In recent months, to use or not to use the Oxford comma has once again become the grammatical issue du jour; of course, it should be noted that coverage hasn’t extended much further than the broadsheets’ blogs, which gives you an idea as to how much the debate actually matters. Some lamented its supposed death, others who didn’t believe that it had expired called for its death, whilst others still suggested that common sense should be allowed to prevail (a ridiculous notion, I know), and that people should just use it when they feel its necessary.

Me, I’ve come to use it almost as a matter of course, not just in my work but in everything I write. For my money, it helps give equal weight to each item listed in a sentence. It also helps avoid confusion and ambiguity, as wonderfully illustrated by The Gloss.

I was never quite this precious about language before, but since finding work as an (associate) editor the way I see language, grammar, and punctuation has changed. More than ever, I am struck by the brilliance of the comma, and convinced that, in the right hands, its usage constitutes an artform all of its own. So much so, in fact, that I recently had to abandon my attempt at reading Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, because of his stylistic decision to all but avoid punctuation.

For an American-born writer, that’s practically sacrilege; despite having its origins in the famous university, it is the US where the Oxford comma is viewed as mandatory. It is not the only feature of American English I admire, either; the likes of “honour” and “labour” have always struck me as ugly words, yet when the superfluous “u” is removed they become much more palatable. The Yanks also gave the letter “z” something meaningful to do, rather than just let it sit on the end of the alphabet like a lazy freeloader.

Language is supposed to constantly evolve, but in recent years that evolution has focused on the creation of ever more ridiculous words and their subsequent addition to whichever dictionaries are most desperate for publicity. I would begrudgingly accept this country’s right to allow phrases as asinine as “mankle” and “fash pack” to enter the lexicon, would it only give something back; the sacrifice of a “u” here and there, the abolition of the “st” on the end of “whilst,” “amongst,” and “amidst.” A small price to pay on the road towards common ground.

But of course, this is England, and we have a deep appreciation for protecting pointless things to the death as a matter of principle, regardless of whether the battle is actually worth fighting. I’ve long since come to terms with that. If people want to defend their honour – or labour a point – they are welcome to do so. And if people don’t have the time to write or to say “food memoir,” they can go ahead and use “foodoir” instead. Just don’t take away my Oxford commas, okay?

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