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The Oxford Comma - Why and Why Not

Did you used to watch Fawlty Towers? If so, you will surely remember the episode in which Basil Fawlty, played by the inimitable John Cleese, is anxious not to offend an incoming group of German guests who, he assumes, carry guilt about their nation's past. He instructs his staff, repeatedly and in increasingly frantic tones, "Don't mention the war!" His anxiety getting the best of him, he ends up goose-stepping through the dining room.

Friends, though our hearts are with our soldiers and the hostages, we need a distraction. In this blog post we will not mention the war! Instead, we will take ourselves to the other end of the spectrum of human significance to engage with grammar. Specifically, the essential and much-abused comma.

When I was a teacher, some students would hand in an entire page of writing with all their thoughts strung together by commas; not a period in sight until possibly the end. The run-on sentence is probably the worst abuse to which the comma is subjected.

Wrote Edgar Allan Poe, “A man's grammar, like Caesar's wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.” Ah, would that it were so simple. We learn the rules of grammar, more or less, feeling ourselves infused with grammatical purity, but real life, real writing, creativity and an adventurous, nay, a mischievous spirit intervene to confound this purity. "I used to be Snow White," said Mae West, "but I drifted."

The aphorism "rules are made to be broken" has been attributed to several people, most often to American general Douglas MacArthur, who said, "rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind." Oliver Wendell Holmes was of the same mind, stating wisely that, "the young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions."

In the early years of school we were young and trusting, faithfully learning rules. In spelling, for instance, we learned I before E, except after C. I was a good girl (at that point) and took this rule to heart, believing the rule sufficient for our species – spelling is a science, isn't it? However, as I grew and became feisty, I was seized by a weird rebelliousness. My friends Keith and Sheila agreed. We began to seek out the exceptions, and there were many.

A punctuation rule that I learned as solid fact was that in a list of words, the words are separated by commas until the final item, which is preceded by 'and,' with no comma. Children need to learn spelling, capitalization, punctuation and proper usage. Like that. I have always conducted my own writing in this way, and anything else just seems wrong. I have corrected my students, in English and in Hebrew, for putting a comma before 'and.' That comma is superfluous. But wait.

I recently encountered the fierce and passionate argument among grammaticians regarding "the Oxford comma." And ooh, while being sure I was spelling that word correctly (Word spellcheck does not recognize it as a word), I came upon the word "grammarian" – grammarians and grammaticians are two different species of nitpickers! Grammarians are like editors – they check that grammar and usage are being executed correctly in writing. Grammaticians specialize in the study of grammar as an academic field. (Both seem to me like thrilling jobs.) It is the grammaticians who argue about the Oxford comma (though the grammarians would certainly be offended if they saw incorrect comma use in writing).

So, without further ado, what is the Oxford comma? The Oxford comma (also known as the series comma, the Cambridge comma or the Harvard comma) is the comma before the last item in a list – before 'and.' In the Oxford University Press, this is house style. There is always a comma before the last item in a list, before 'and.' Well. This offends me deeply. However, sometimes the Oxford comma is necessary for clarity. I might go to the store and buy orange juice, coffee, eggs, yogurt, fruit and croissants. However, on a restaurant or hotel breakfast menu, the menu should offer orange juice, coffee, eggs, yogurt and fruit, and croissants. Or how about, John is excited to visit Madame Tussaud's and see his girlfriend Molly's parents, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. Now, are Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton really Molly's parents? The Oxford comma clears up the confusion:  John is excited to visit Madame Tussaud's and see his girlfriend Molly's parents, Elvis Presley, and Dolly Parton (the latter two in wax). With all the tweeting and texting that we're doing, we have gotten quite lazy about all aspects of our grammar, including comma use. A SkyNews headline tweet of a few years ago read in part, "World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set ..." Did Obama and Castro merely shake hands or they are also planning a same-sex marriage? The Oxford comma is called for. A final example, seen on a public bathroom: “Attention: Toilet ONLY for disabled, children, elderly and pregnant.” You can see how inserting the Oxford comma here might prevent the odd snicker.

All the style guides – APA, Chicago, MLA and AP (no need for an Oxford comma in that list) require or strongly recommend use of the Oxford comma, to avoid confusion. Humph. I still think each list should be evaluated on its own merit and the writer should decide whether the Oxford comma is needed or not.

The comma in all its uses should be examined, considered, respected and understood.  Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. The comma can save lives!

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How wonderful to immerse in the world of grammar and for a few minutes delay thoughts (but never forget) about the war, our hostages and their families, our soldiers and their families, the displaced people, our whole nation that is striving for survival. In this case there was no need for an oxford comma as all the items on the list are one whole.

Thanks again for your delightful blog. Especially in times like these, it is priceless.

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