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Oxford Comma Fans Unite!
Some say the Oxford Comma got its name because editors at the Oxford Press were the first to show a preference for it. Others say it came from the people who first used it, who were often characterized by their wearing of Oxford cloth shirts and Oxford shoes.
“Anyone who does not use the Oxford comma is a fool, a brigand, or a communist.” (A rather blunt public statement made recently by a fan of the Oxford comma.)
You may not have heard of the Oxford comma before, but you will hear of it now. I fully expect you to be delighted. The Oxford comma's avid supporters are becoming vocal, violent, and even vicious over the basic human rights of their beloved comma.
A regular comma in a sentence is the tap of the baton during a concert, a picture frame against a plain wall, or eyebrows on a face. Though words give meaning to a sentence, commas show the relation of those words to each other and categorize ideas in true scientific rank. However, one breed of comma has emerged out of the lowly wastebasket of unwanted grammar idioms and nobly carried on the duties of its punctuated forbears: the "Oxford comma” or “serial comma.” Known for its particularly commandeering leadership when trouble and confusion arises, the Oxford comma barks out orders and puts the newbies in their place.
“You! Over there!”
After another survey of the ranks: “You two! None of that fraternizing-- separate immediately.”
Not realizing the streamlined efficiency that comes with hiring the Oxford comma as a drill sergeant, American sentences have suffered confusion and mediocrity over the years, rather than be counted among the creamy old English armies across the pond.
What Is the Oxford Comma?
It’s about time you asked. America, meet Oxford.
The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is the comma that comes before the “and” that is between the last two items in a list of three or more. The best way to show it is by example. No Oxford comma:
Johnny, Billy, Timmy and Sammy...
With Oxford comma:
Johnny, Billy, Timmy, and Sammy...
Without the Oxford comma, we wonder if the last two items of the list come as a pair. Let’s see. We have Johnny? “Here!” And Billy? “Present!” What about Timmy and Sammy? Um.... yes. I see you are both here. Two by two, like animals on the ark, Timmy and Sammy will be inseparably, though perhaps unintentionally, paired.
Though the meaning of the example above is perhaps clear enough because of many traditionalist, superstitious, anti-oxford-comma advocates across the world, lawyers and attorneys agree that many legal disputes would be easily cleared if the Oxford comma were more widely used.
One Oxford comma defendant declared, “I heard of a case in which a will left the estate to be divided by John, Mary and Robert. The estate was divided into two parts, one of which was split between Mary and Robert. Viva il comma!”
The Oxford Comma and the Vampire Weekend
Recently Vampire Weekend produced a pop rock song called "Oxford Comma," protesting in a light and carefree way against stuffy grammarians and english professors, "all your diction dripping with disdain." The meaning behind the lyrics seems to be to get academic snobs to stop disdaining their butlers. Crude and distasteful language comes up right away, with our dear Oxford Comma being sadly harangued. The band, in white suits and seventies-style hairdos, strolls through a green field full of little people playing war, and rides off over a fairy-tale-ish horizon in an old white cadillac, with a gaggle of fifties-diner girls running in its wake. The guitar and vocals are nicely done, the tune is catchy, the lead singer sharply dressed. I wish I could say the same for his grammar.
Are you purposely trying to be confusing?
The confusion really sets in when several lists of pairs are grouped with no Oxford comma to separate bone from marrow. For example:
Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Jack and Jill, Batman and Robin and Romeo and Juliet...
With an Oxford comma nicely situated between “Batman and Robin” and “and Romeo and Juliet,” we would have no confusion about how many items in the list there are and what composes those items. See?
Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Jack and Jill, Batman and Robin, and Romeo and Juliet.
Not only can we completely confuse our comic book characters and our Shakespearian couples, but we can verge on heresy, as this famous example illustrates:
“Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
What will we have to do to ensure that the Oxford comma, so obviously indispensable, gains a permanent place in the hearts (and grammar books) of American editors?
For starters, we writers must be willing to break a bad habit and step out of our comfort zones by tipping our hats to the British and acknowledging the superiority of the Oxford comma. Next? We must actually use the Oxford comma.
Confessions of a Grammar Addict:
Even though I have been a passionate activist for the Oxford comma since before I knew its name, my fingers have joined a worker’s union and petitioned to leave the Oxford comma out of their assembly line. I have had some serious management issues to overcome, and every time a cluster of three or more items is produced, I have to force my workers to go back over their work a second time and add an Oxford comma before the “and” at the end. My fingers always comply the second time around, but my goal is to so familiarize them to the use of the Oxford comma that they put it in its necessary place without having to go back over their work a second time.
According to the facebook fan page for the Oxford comma, this magnificent piece of ink
1) reduces ambiguity,
2) echoes spoken cadence, and
3) maintains consistency with the rules for semicolon usage.
"The Oxford comma breathed new life into our marriage."
Other avid, eloquent, and illustrious supporters of the Oxford comma have publicly declared:
“This is my favorite punctuation mark of all time! Even the stylish and useful semi-colon doesn't measure up to the beauty of an Oxford comma.”
“I have always used the Oxford comma, despite being frequently marked down for it. One instructor had a talk with me about it during which I explicitly refused to stop. I made my case to her, politely but unwaveringly disagreeing with the AP and her own opinion. She stopped marking me down for it, but still circled every single one.”
“[John Doe] agrees with the use of the oxford comma. Society is that much closer to anarchy without it.”
“I am in love with the Oxford comma. If it were socially acceptable, I would marry it. I worked briefly as a proofreader and am a grammar buff, so this is something I have always felt strongly about and have fought for, often in near-physical fights.
“Long live the comma! May it long continue to add clarity, cadence, and cauliflowers.”
© 2010 Jane Grey