Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Oxford Comma


A friend of mine asked me recently, “Hey, did you blog about the Oxford comma?” This was basically entrapment. Having posted 690 times to albertnet, I feel like all the easy topics (e.g., bike gearing, pasta, flatulence, cycling, the spelling of “kindergartner”) have been exhausted, so I struggle to come up with new ones. Thus, an inquiry like this is basically an assignment.

Herein I will explore the raging debate around the serial, aka Oxford, comma: what is it, who uses it, should it be used, should we care, and why do we care?

What is the Oxford comma?

When a sentence includes a list of things, the Oxford comma is the one placed before “and,” as in this example:

“I bought some gum, a lighter, and a knife.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma would omit that final comma:

“I bought some gum, a lighter and a knife.”

Opponents assert that this final comma is redundant because “and” gets the job done by itself. Proponents cite the lack of clarity that can result if this comma is omitted, as in this classic example:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”

Had the Oxford comma been used in the above sentence, nobody would be wondering if J.F.K. and Stalin were strippers. Obviously you could dodge the grammar and say clarity is achieved by knowing that neither world leader looked good naked, but that’s cheating.

Strong opinions

I emailed three of my wife’s former newspaper colleagues (the “recovering journalists,” I call them) to get their take. Ed immediately wrote back, “I don’t like the Oxford command [sic] anyway [sic], shape or form!” Rachel opined that “the Oxford comma is redundant and ungrammatical,” gave some rationale for her position, and concluded, “I will die on this hill.” The third, Monique, was the most emphatic of all, declaring, “I literally included this line in a [résumé] cover letter: ‘Colleagues know me as positive, trustworthy, calm in a crisis and always ready to battle the Oxford comma!’”

Oddly, when I inquired with my bike team email group, most of the responses were the opposite. Seven supported the Oxford comma, one didn’t care, and one wrote “depends.” My friend Pete, who started this whole thing, and is also a cyclist, is strongly for it. And this article in Bicycling mentions that American pro cyclist Chad Haga is a big fan of the Oxford comma. So why are cyclists different from journalists? I’ll get to that. But first…

Should we use the Oxford comma?

I favor the Oxford comma, for the simple reason that many writers don’t have the judgment to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether that final comma is needed. A journalist might pause to consider the matter, and would understand sentence structure well enough to make the right call, but so many people wouldn’t. Therefore, we should have a simple rule that can be applied every time. The comma in “apples, bananas, and pears” isn’t hurting anything.

I suppose the recovering journalists would argue that the “extra” comma slows things down—and journalists are all about speed. Their greatest fear seems to be that the reader will lose patience and stop reading. I suspect this is somewhat inaccurate, because the traditional audience for newspapers has all but evaporated, and those (like me) still willing to pay for a home subscription actually love to read, and aren’t in a constant panic about it taking too long. (Never mind that the doomscrollers end up reading a tremendous amount, though in tiny bite-sized pieces.)

Meanwhile, not all text is news, and when clarity is lost in certain contexts, such as law, the effect can be disastrous. Long ago, when I was working my first corporate job, our office split off from the parent company, very acrimoniously. I was charged with reviewing the split-off agreement, which included language around how long our consultants could continue using software that had been developed in-house. Due to the lack of an Oxford comma, it wasn’t clear whether all six software applications could be used, or just the last one in the list. I almost spoke up about this, but for some reason I just didn’t. (Maybe I was just tired after a futile debate with my boss over apostrophes.) Well, lo and behold, the former parent company ended up suing us for continuing to use all six apps, and though we eventually prevailed, the lawsuit wasted well over a month, cost gobs in legal fees, and was a massive distraction. I should have spoken up … but if the Oxford comma had been the law of the land, I wouldn’t have had to.

This kind of thing surely happens a lot. Some years ago, as described in this New York Times article, a Maine dairy company had to pay $5 million to drivers because the overtime policy, as written into Maine law, wasn’t clear about what types of work were exempted. The lack of clarity opened the door to the (ultimately successful) overtime claim. As if the $5 million wasn’t bad enough, Maine revised the law very crudely. You see, they couldn’t just add the Oxford comma, because they were dead set against it. As described here, “the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual … specifically instructs lawmakers to not use the Oxford comma.” So they came up with a grotesque new construction: “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” is how they arranged their sequence. They just replaced the Oxford comma with a semicolon, understanding that punctuation is required before the “or” but refusing to make it a comma. I think anyone who cares about words and grammar would agree that’s a monstrosity, and that this overly zealous adherence to the anti-Oxford-comma stance is absurd.

Of course the anti-Oxford-comma group would say fine, use it when it’s truly necessary, but omit it the rest of the time, because it’s jarring and slows the reader down. An essay in the Daily Californian states, “As readers, our brains are trained to pause when we see commas.” Well, yes, but when reading a sequence, we pause at each comma (which is what they’re for) and we also pause for the implicit comma suggested by “and.” If we didn’t, we’d get tripped up. Frankly, I think the lack of comma slows me down because I find it jarring—it’s like being clotheslined.

That this lack trips me up, but doesn’t bother the recovering journalists, suggests I’m reading different stuff, such that this serial comma seems normal to me. My favorite magazine, The New Yorker, famously defies the Associated Press Stylebook in always employing it. (Mary Norris, their “comma queen,” explains her rationale here.) The Oxford comma is also employed by most of the novelists I read. (I just spot-checked the last one, Tana French, and have confirmed she’s indeed in the pro-comma camp.) On a hunch, I searched the index of Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions to see if he weighed in on this matter, and while there’s no entry, the opening sentence of the book happens to employ this comma: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” As for the absence of serial commas in the Times, I don’t exactly read that paper anyway … I usually just skim it.

So why do cyclists seem to promote the Oxford comma? My wife’s theory is that more of us are engineer-types, and I will say that the loveliness of bicycles as mechanical objects is a big part of the sport’s allure, whatever our background. Moreover, anyone who has to properly dial in spoke tension, brakes, and indexed shifting generally has a healthy respect for being methodical and precise, even at the expense of time and effort. I will go one step further and suggest that road cycling is a good way to learn patience. I rode up Mount Diablo yesterday and was acutely aware how long that takes … halfway up the climb I thought, “Cool, only half an hour to go” and then realized, wait, that’s a long time to suffer in 90-degree heat. (And then it’s two more hours riding home.) To me, the kind of brisk, comma-avoidant sentences favored by journalists are aesthetically at odds with the experience of long-distance cycling, which is so often a slog. I don’t spin the pedals like a hamster … I like to stand up and mosh away at a low cadence … shove, shove, shove. The brief lull at the top of each pedal stroke is a bit like a comma.

Should we care about the Oxford comma?

Two things have stood out for me in researching this post. First, the responses to my inquiry—not just those that supported my position, but also the ones that didn’t—were a joy to read. Well, actually, not all of them. The one who replied “Who gives a f—?” didn’t please or inspire me. (Another replied with that comment but only to direct me to this Vampire Weekend rock video.) Apathy toward language bothers me in this era of STEM-obsessed non-readers who prefer podcasts and YouTube over the written word. My second observation is that reading various articles about the Oxford comma has been an extremely pleasant way to pass the time. (In addition to what I’ve quoted from, several other articles, like this one, greatly amused me). Readers and writers who get fired up about linguistic minutiae are my people. What side of the fence we’re on is less important.

Case in point: my friend Trevor took me to task, years ago, for using two spaces after a period. While I debated this heartily at the time, I have now conceded that he’s right … not because two spaces was never helpful, but because lots of modern software doesn’t handle a pair of spaces correctly. It’s just not worth fighting modern convention. But what I didn’t expect, when I conceded this point, is that now, years later, seeing two spaces looks wrong to me. My taste has adjusted, which is a reminder that opinions can be malleable … but apathy is absolute. 

Why do we care?

Where the Oxford comma debate is concerned, one thing is perfectly clear: those with an opinion hold it strongly. But why should this be, when the matter hinges on such a subtle point, and the English language is so convoluted to begin with? I suppose that once you’ve made up your mind what’s right and what’s wrong, every instance of the “wrong” usage feels like an affront. Perhaps it’s the same way we respond to fashion: once we’ve decided fanny packs are dorky, we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one, even though a whole lot of people (mostly tourists, it seems) just love them.

The Oxford comma, then, could be considered a matter of fashion, just like anything else. In his New Yorker essay “A Tale of Two Cafés,” Adam Gopnik examines the phenomenon of two perfectly good neighboring cafés in Paris, the Flore and the Deux Magots, one of which is always preferred and the other shunned—even though their popularity flip-flops over time, according to the whims of Parisians. Gopnik quotes a “dour friend” who sums up the matter as intrinsic to human nature:

The relationship between the modishness of the Flore and the unmodishness of the Deux Magots isn’t just possibly arbitrary. It’s necessarily arbitrary… The reason that, when you place any two things side by side, one becomes chic and the other does not is that it’s in the nature of desire to choose, and to choose absolutely.

I think that’s a big part of it, anyway. Beyond that, the Oxford comma is just plain correct. I mean, isn’t that obvious?

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