Some grammatical conventions stir up emotions. The so-called Oxford comma, for example, is clearly serious business. Personally I can’t stand it, but I know several writers who start hyperventilating just by the thought of neglecting it. What’s the deal here?
What is the Oxford comma?
The Oxford comma is considered correct use of written English by authorities like William Strunk’s classic grammar book Elements of style and Oxford University Press. In Elements of Style, it is explained thus:
“In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last” (http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk.html).
In practice, it is simply the difference between writing “Polish, Russian, and Swedish vodka” instead of “Polish, Russian and Swedish vodka”. The former sentence has an Oxford comma (after “Russian”), the latter has not.
…and why does it matter?
“Seriously”, you may think, “who cares about that”? Well, a lot of people do, as you can see in this article in the Guardian, for example. Oxford comma supporters often claim that we need it for clarity. I know several zealous grammarians who send me funny examples of sentences that are meant to prove why:
“I went to a party with two clowns, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.”
“My heroes are my parents, Superman and Superwoman.”
“I dedicate this book to my best friends, Arnold Schwarzenegger and God.”
“See what happens without the Oxford comma”, they say triumphantly. “You turn Barack Obama into a clown!” Yes yes, very funny. It is just that the examples above are very rare. More often than not, the Oxford comma is superfluous, pointless and in the way. Most importantly, it disrupts the flow of the text by introducing a pause that I probably didn’t want. Which is, after all, the only sensible reason for using commas in the first place.
Minimalism and common sense
If that’s not enough of an argument, it also clutters up the page along with semicolons (ugh), the use of a comma after a greeting (Dear Ms Kerfuffle, – blä) and full stops after Mr and Ms (Mr. Kerfuffle – just why?). I prefer minimalism as a guiding principle. Think clean, functional Scandinavian design – if I don’t need something, I’ll bin it.
Having said all this, I don’t mean that we should ban the Oxford comma from every sentence ever. If it is needed to avoid comparing Barack Obama to a clown, I will use it. Trust me on this one: it is called common sense. And I like Obama.
I can think of two other cases when I would gladly use it: If it is required by a client’s style guide and when I do want to introduce a pause. But just because a small number of sentences in the world have a need for an Oxford comma, why would we use it in sentences where it is not needed?
Why, indeed. In my humble opinion, what is really behind the hyperventilating grammar enthusiast is a kind of snobbery. Using the Oxford comma is a way to show that you are well versed in the English language. Those who argue relentlessly about the importance of a comma are often people who have made an effort to learn good grammar – and who love pointing it out to those who haven’t.
I can’t believe I just spent several hours writing about a “,”. Is it ridiculous to make a fuss about such a tiny little punctuation mark? Perhaps, but it actually opens up a wider question: how important is it to follow grammatical conventions and rules? I agree with those who think that 1) languages are constantly changing and what is considered correct today is not fixed, nor the ultimate truth, 2) the function of grammar is to describe how a language is used by native speakers, not to prescribe how they should use it, 3) it is up to the users of a language to decide what is best practice, not dusty grammar books and 4) correct copy is not the same thing as effective copy.
Does that mean that we can ignore grammar and write as we please? Sorry, it doesn’t work like that – we should aim for clarity and most of the time, writing clearly also means writing grammatically.
Let’s finish with the American rock band Vampire Weekend who want to know who cares about an Oxford comma:
By the way, I am not the only one who prefers common sense to grammar rules, as this wonderful article in the Guardian shows. If you are an Oxford comma supporter, however, feel free to disagree and comment – go on, I know you want to :)