9:17am

Wed July 13, 2011
Opinion

The Nation: Semicolon, Hyphen And No Serial Comma

Maria Kari is a freelance writer and journalist currently based in Vancouver, BC.

"Who gives a [insert expletive] about an Oxford comma," asked the Vampire Weekend boys in 2008, shocking many an English teacher and publishing industry professional. Now, three years later, the usefulness of the oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) has come into question again. Let me preface this article by assuaging your worried souls: despite rumors to the contrary, the Oxford comma is not dead.

Since the self-immolation carried out by a Tunisian fruit vendor which had far-reaching consequences across the region, the world has watched the political and social transformation across the Muslim world.

On Wednesday last week news that the Oxford style guide had declared that the Oxford comma as a "general rule" should be avoided went viral faster than Usain Bolt. The official entry read:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write 'a, b and c' not 'a, b, and c'. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used — especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by 'and':

Later, however, the news was amended. Indeed, the OUP has cited irreconcilable differences and severed ties with the Oxford comma — but for the purposes of press releases only. The Oxford comma will continue to be used in all other publishing matters and there will be no changes made to the century-old style (much to the chagrin of the notorious punctuation mark's adversaries).

Indeed, no other punctuation mark has seen such levels of fame. No semicolon, tilde or hyphen has a hipster ode dedicated to it. And no parenthesis', ellipsis' or semi-colons have inspired Eastcoast-Westcoast rap-battle style Twitterverse showdowns. So, as proverbial villagers wield torches at the door of the house of the superfluous comma, the question begs to be asked: who really does give a [insert expletive] about the oxford comma?

Turns out, there are quite a few willing to give an [insert expletive], dog, cat, and gold coin — and rightfully so.

I, a lady, writer and maker-of-serial-lists for one am part of this liberal and plentiful domain.

Joining me are the good people at Columbia University's Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma group who aren't taking lightly to the decision by the "upstart group of riffraff calling itself "The Associated Press" [which] has decided that the Oxford comma become obsolete. These folks have gone ahead and pledged to "dedicate their lives to the defense of the comma that separates the penultimate item in a list from the conjunction."

All I'm saying is: there's a pretty big difference between "Meet my wife, my lover, and my best friend" and "Meet my wife, my lover and best friend." And as anyone who has tried jotting down a long list would know, chaos can ensue without the help of our good comma friend.

So to all those vainglorious copyeditors out there, don't be so quick to abrogate the practice of Oxford comma-fying. True, the practice is a tricky one and, as some would argue, an unnecessary and tedious one only serving to slow down the always-seminal reader.

But how the 'and' between a list of items can be expected to act as honorary comma baffles me. Allow me to pose a hypothetical situation. Have a list of three or more items? Let's refer to the image above and use: eggs, toast, and orange juice.

Really now — can I not rest my case that the venerable institution of the Oxford comma is a bare necessity?

But I'm just the writer at the mercy of my copy editor...and my complaints — they'll just go to waste. So really, who gives a [insert expletive] about the writer?

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