R.I.P. Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma is dead.  (If you don’t know what the Oxford comma is anyway, look here for smart people to tell you.)   Well, more or less dead. The University of Oxford styleguide apparently was updated to now include the following guideline for punctuation:

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’

Now, the Oxford comma has been dying a slow death for years. It hasn’t been popular in the UK for a long time, and, as the Huffington Post article also mentions, even American standard works such as the Associated Press Stylebook and the Canadian Stylebook made no use of it. So this has just been the coup de grace to the Oxford comma, which has been due for a long time.

And good riddance, I say. The Oxford comma never made much sense to me, though I admit that that fact probably arises from my linguistic background. You see, in German (and Italian, Polish, French, Spanish, and a lot of other languages) the Oxford comma is not only rarely, but never used. In many of these, it does in fact go against punctuation rules. Yet even if you leave that aside, its usage was never consistent, it was mostly redundant and it could create ambiguity as often as it would resolve it. I for one won’t miss it.

I’ve corrected a lot of essays and papers as well as blog posts and emails in my time, both during my studies and in my free time, and I’ve noticed one thing: no one ever gets punctuation right. It doesn’t matter whether it’s native speakers of English writing in English, native speakers of German writing in German, or native speakers of German writing in English (and probably many other combinations as well, those are just the ones I have the most experience with). It’s commas, semicolons and hyphens that are giving people the most trouble, even if they’re otherwise perfectly fluent in the language in question. And amongst these, the comma is the worst offender.

The main problem with commas is that the rules governing their usage are very versatile (just look at these), which often lures people into thinking that they can place a comma wherever they feel like. In addition, as mentioned above, commas fall under heavily different rulesets in foreign languages. Some people also tend to use commas as a means to transfer streams of consciousness into writing, using a comma as an excuse to run on with their already overlong sentence instead of breaking it up into two readable chunks.

But basically, there are two types of mistakes people will make when it comes to commas. They’re usually fairly consistent about it, too: they either use commas wherever possible, or not at all. Small wonder: since no one knows how to do commas correctly, people opt either to leave them out completely (to be on the safe side: so as not to put one where none belongs) or put them everywhere (to be on the safe side: so none is missing from somewhere one should be).

Why are commas so hard? I guess it might be because  they’re the part of punctuation least reflected in speech (which obviously predates written forms of language). You can more or less “hear” colons and question/exclamation marks. But you can’t hear commas, because they do not mark a pause or tone in speech, just a unit of meaning within the sentence. In a way, it’s similar to capitalization. We do not require it in speech and have, in fact, no way to mark it, but in written language, it occasionally becomes necessary for clarity and readability.

In that analogy of sentence structure and lettering, though, the English Oxford comma was like German’s “scharfes ß”…a relict of the past that only serves to confuse people anymore.

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Published in: on July 1, 2011 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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