Let's Put a Full Stop to the Oxford Comma

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With all due respect to the ancient university, just because you put the word “Oxford” in front of something, it doesn’t make it immune from criticism.

An Oxford Blue is pretty impressive. Oxford shoes look nice and smart; but the Oxford comma? What a horrible thing. Thank God that the university’s branding people decided to remove it from their style book. Sadly, after a storm of pedantry on Twitter, Oxford University Press has insisted that it is retaining the comma, as it has for a century.

What was all the fuss about? The Oxford – or serial – comma is the one inserted just before the “and” or “or” in the last item of a list of three or more items. If Winston Churchill had used an Oxford comma, he would have written, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Without the Oxford comma, he would have offered just “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

These are choppy grammatical waters. Usually, the answer is to follow the grammatical rule that removes confusion. In Lynne Truss’s best-seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, she illustrates correct comma use with reference to a violent panda, as defined in a badly punctuated wildlife book.

After lunch, the panda fires a gun at fellow customers in a café. To justify his actions to the waiter, the panda points at the shoddy wildlife manual, where he is defined as a mammal that “eats, shoots and leaves”.

On the whole, no such distinction is created by the Oxford comma. We understand what Churchill is offering, whether he uses one or not. There are, admittedly, times when an Oxford comma makes better sense. “I’d like to thank my parents, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe” is less confusing than “I’d like to thank my parents, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.”

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