The battle over the Oxford comma!


The English language is a frustrating friend.

She’ll wow you with great writing that reaches across the page and touches your soul. She’ll string together stunning phrase after stunning phrase that turns the mundane into something out-of-this-world and leaves you breathless.

And then you sit down to write and she’ll trick you into using “there” when you should use “they’re” or is it “their.” Another day, you’ll spend countless minutes going back and forth figuring out whether to use affect or effect, confusing you to the point where you decide to just choose another word. You go with “impact,” knowing that without “forcible contact” in the meaning, you’re using the word incorrectly. A third day, you write down “imminent” when you mean “eminent.”

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English grammar and punctuation are a puzzle and I’ve been fooled too many times to count, falling in love with commas when I should be using semicolons; misspelling words that would be simple enough to spell if I just looked them up in the dictionary; and forgetting the simple rules that we learned as pint-sized elementary school kids.

I know the challenges all too well. Some of the copy editors and communications professionals who’ve worked with me in the past can certainly attest to my grammar shortcomings. For that reason, I tend to give others a pass for their minor English blunders. I’ll overlook a misspelling or a missed comma in a coworker’s email. I’ll look the other way when a Facebook friend forgets a simple contraction.

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Becoming a grammar nerd

I’m pretty laid back when it comes to basic grammar. I figure I’ve wasted too much time in elementary school and middle school diagramming and outlining sentences to get too up in arms over a simple grammar or punctuation mistake. I inevitably decide to keep my proofreader’s marks to myself, but there’s two rules that I’m fanatical in my rigidity.

First, I go crazy when I see two spaces after a period. The “two spaces after period” rule was established during the days of typesetters, when additional space was needed to show the difference between the spacing between words and sentences. Unless you are typing on an actual typewriter—remember them—you no longer have to put two spaces after a period. While annoying to see, it’s still simple enough to fix.

The other error is a little more complicated.

Count me wholeheartedly in the camp that believes in the Oxford Comma, the comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more items. For example, a sentence listing Winter Olympic sports might be punctuated either as “alpine skiing, snowboarding, and figure skating” (with the serial comma) or as “alpine skiing, snowboarding and figure skating” (without the serial comma).

Writer style guides and opinion varies on the usage of this serial comma. The Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Style Manual, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and many other style guides mandate the use of the serial comma. In contrast, the Associated Press Stylebook, used by many newspapers and websites, advises against it. The Oxford comma is used less often in British English, but a few British style guides still require it.

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Why it matters

Those who advise against using the comma, say it can introduce ambiguity, is redundant, and adds unnecessary bulk to the text.

I say BS to that.

I use the comma to keep consistency, match the spoken cadence of sentences, and resolve ambiguity. Finally, I use the Oxford comma because its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists.

For example, as one of my more nit-picking college professors liked to point out: “your heroes may be your parents, Superman and Wonder Woman.” He would then add in a mocking voice, “unless your parents come from the planet Krypton or Paradise Island with the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, let’s use the comma.”

And oh yea, it just looks wrong.

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Grammar in real life

It’s not just me who cares about the Oxford comma.

No one likes to see a bunch of grammar nerds fighting over spilt milk, it’s not a pretty sight, but the fight over the Oxford comma has taken on important repercussions. A group of dairy delivery drivers settled a $5 million dispute early this month with a Maine dairy company over the absence of an Oxford comma in their contract.

The sentence at the heart of the dairy drivers’ case referred to Maine’s overtime law and whom it doesn’t apply to: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

“(1) Agricultural produce;

“(2) Meat and fish products; and

“(3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers argued that the law read “packing for shipment or distribution” as a single act and since they didn’t do any packing, they shouldn’t have been exempt from overtime payment. Dairy company execs didn’t talk with reporters after the settlement, but something tells me they’ll start using the Oxford comma in future contracts.

So feel free to go ahead and keep adding two spaces after a period and making fun of the Oxford comma. Go ahead and skip these two rules if you must, but proceed with caution. I, for one, most certainly will be following both rules!

Now if I could just figure out when I need to use “affect” and “effect,” then I would be really getting some where.

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