November 13, 2015
I was going to write about Starbucks cups this week, but it’s not controversial enough. Instead, I bring you another rant on the Oxford comma.
Perhaps you still are unaware of the Great Oxford Comma Controversy.
Among grammar geeks, the Oxford comma divide is only overshadowed by
arguments over the dreaded semicolon. Think Capitol Hill Republicans and
Democrats. Republicans are pro-Oxford comma. Democrats believe it should
be aborted. That’s the divide here.
At this point, you may be scratching your head, saying, “What’s an Oxford
comma?” You’ve seen it; you probably even have an opinion on it. You’ve
just never heard it named before. So let’s define it:
In a series of three or more listed items, the Oxford comma is used before the word “and," “or,” or another conjunction. In the sentence, “He was tall, muscular, and a musician,” we have the Oxford comma between “muscular” and “and.” Without the Oxford comma, you would write it “tall, muscular and a musician.”
Who the heck cares, right?
Well, in certain instances, the Oxford comma does makes a difference. Take the sentence: “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.”
I know, right? That would be one ugly kid!
But if you insert the Oxford comma after Clinton—which he would thoroughly enjoy, by the way—then the emphasis changes. “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.” Four people, not two.
That’s why Oxford zealots, which include the founder of the Oxford comma—the Oxford University Press—insist on using it in any list of three or more. Others say it’s unnecessary except to make the ambiguous clear. By the way, Oxford comma detractors include Oxford University, of which Oxford University Press is a part. In fact, in all of Great Britain, only the Oxford University Press insists on using the Oxford comma.
Here in the United States, however, we’re absolutely puritanical about using it. The Chicago Manual
of Style, The Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all insist on using
the Oxford comma. It’s the communistic U.S. media that drops it: The Associated Press, the New York
Times, and the Economist, for example.
Personally, I’m among those who don’t care if you use it or not. I’m an Oxford comma agnostic. When
writing for the media, I don’t use it. When writing for anyone else, I generally do. The only caveat here
is that in any particular piece of writing, use it or don’t use it consistently. Don’t mix and match. Pick
a side and stick to your guns, even if you have to switch sides later. This country was founded on
the principle that I’m right and you’re wrong. Honor that principle and be consistent in the use of a
British comma that most of Britain doesn’t use.
That’s my humble opinion and I’m sticking to it. Now excuse me while I draw Christmas commas on my Starbucks cup.
Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.