Monthly Archives: April 2013

Oxford Commas

Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma? asked Vampire Weekend, inspired by a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. Well, I do. I’m very fond of commas, and I’d rather use them than cause ambiguity or a lack of crispness. Please note the Oxford comma in that last sentence – creating a dramatic, positively moving, caesura.

The Facebook Oxford Comma page has 30,900 likes as I write, by the way.

Just to refresh your memory – an Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma is a comma placed before a coordinating conjunction (such as ‘and’, ‘or’, or ‘nor’).

Using an Oxford comma, you’d write –

Cats, dogs, and otters

Without, it would obviously be –

Cats, dogs and otters

I violently resent the latter, as it suggests some weird connection between dogs and otters. Dogs. Otters. Separate things. And the former has a lovely pause before the ‘and’, don’t you think?

Oxford commas, so-called because they’re traditionally used by the Oxford University Press, also prevent preposterous ambiguity.

For instance, I could dedicate this blog –

To my parents, Ann Widdecombe and God

But my parents are, as you may know, not God and Ann Widdecombe. They’re Mr and Mrs Senior Peacock. So it totally makes sense to add an Oxford comma –

 

To my parents, Ann Widdecombe, and God

(not that I’d dedicate it to God or Ms Widdecombe, despite her love of cats)

One of my favourite illustrations of the confusion caused by an absent Oxford comma is from a TV listing for a documentary about the country singer Merle Haggard –

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall

Of course, you can avoid having to use Oxford commas by changing the order of the listed items –

To God, Ann Widdecombe and my parents

But I’m still partial to it, and I’ll continue to use it, despite the fact that it’s often seen as a bit American. It is, after all, recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the US Government Printing Office Style Manual.

Oxford University Press’s style manual and Fowler’s Modern English Usage are also pro. But AP, The Times and The Economist are anti.

The Guardian, sensible as ever, says you should use it when necessary.

As for the princess of punctuation, Lynne Truss –

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken

Apology

I am so sorry. North Korea hacked into my account overnight and has been posting on Peacockshock. I’m doing my best to remove the entries.