A storm in a teacup over a comma

Jul 05, 2011

Oxford University turned its back on the Oxford comma  or so it was reported.* 

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma and is used to mark off items in a list. For example using the Oxford comma you write eggs, milk, and cheese, not eggs, milk and cheese. Using the serial comma can make it clear which items form the list when individual items are compounds, sometimes with 'and' in them. For example if you didn't have the comma in eggs on toast, milk and flavouring, and cheese you might wonder whether flavouring was an individual item in the list or not. The comma makes it clear that the item is 'milk and flavouring'. This is a simple list but when you are dealing with unfamiliar items or long items, it becomes harder to decode and the extra comma is a help. Different kinds of writing tend to create this problem more than others so reference writing will have a greater need for it than fiction writing. In dictionary definitions it tends to occur quite often since many definitions finish with a list of illustrative items, and so Macquarie Dictionary routinely uses the Oxford comma because occasionally the lack of it will cause a problem and so for the sake of consistency we use it all the time.

Two things emerge from all this. The first is that it is astonishing how passionately people can feel about a comma. The world over the last few days has divided up into those who are for and those who are against. One person tweeted:

`Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals'

There is a small group in the middle that protests that you should be able to use the comma when it is needed and leave it out when it is not needed. But for and against lobbies brush that suggestion aside. 

The other thing that became clear is that this little bit of trivia on the Oxford University website was an instruction in the style guide for University staff writing press releases and internal memos. Oxford University Press retains the Oxford comma.

I like the comment that we should used the serial comma because otherwise it would be unfair for the first item in the series to be the only one singled out and weighed down by the comma. I had never thought of crying out for justice for list leaders but now I will defend them at every opportunity from comma victimisation.

 *Read full article: Oxford cleared of serial comma killing | Alison Flood | The Guardian

This article was originally posted on our Facebook page.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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Damaris Wilson - April 19, 2016, 4:48 p.m.

Hooray (or should that be Hurrah!?) for common sense! I'm afraid I've been wilful enough to continue to use it despite Macquarie's ruling.

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