It was great to see the comma-nists at war, but Vampire Weekend puts things in perspective

Praise be, the sky will not fall in and the world will not end tomorrow, although Alf is aware of what Harold Camping is predicting and will feel much cheerier about he future if we are still here on October 12.

Mind you, Harold wasn’t in good shape last time Alf checked, and so he might not make it through to October 11 to bask in the satisfaction he was right, if that’s the way things turn out.

But let’s not digress.

The world will not end immediately.

And the Oxford comma has not been snuffed.

But it looked like touch and go for a while.

The University of Oxford faced an internet outcry – and a mass show of support for its Oxford comma – after a false rumour had us believe it would abandon the punctuation mark.

Twitter was set alight after the US publishing site GalleyCat was alerted to the comma’s false demise.

The Oxford comma, otherwise known as the serial comma, is used before an “and” or “or” and sometimes “nor”, before a final item in a list. Example: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah.

While not widely used, the relevance of the Oxford comma has been the subject of passionate debates over the years and even prompted a song from the indie band Vampire Weekend.

Oxford University – whew! – quelled the uproar by officially stating the guidelines were only for press releases and internal communication.

The first para of a report at Stuff showed how the Oxford comma can be used – or ignored.

A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.

See the difference between the two previous sentences?

An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.

For those of you who might be anxious to get it right, guides to correct style differ.

Nevertheless, as the Stuff report noted, the erroneous report caused a Twitterstorm.

“For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I’d like to thank my parents, Sinead O’Connor and the Pope,” said Twitter user Aaron Suggs (ktheory), deftly illustrating the potential damage that can be caused to a sentence’s meaning.

A Guardian blogger said the fuss at least answered a question asked by Vampire Weekend: who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

Quite a few people, it turns out, including the entire population of the United States (or the significant proportion thereof that uses Twitter).

The horrified reaction to last week’s much retweeted, if inaccurate, claim that “Oxford University is abandoning the Oxford comma” was led by Americans alarmed at this new threat to the special relationship.

This is unsurprising, as traditional US language guides, from the worthy but dull Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to the dull but worthy Chicago Manual of Style, regard the Oxford (or serial) comma – the last in a list, immediately before the word “and” – as mandatory.

Indeed it is No 2, no less, in Strunk & White’s “elementary rules” of usage: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”

To true believers in this maxim, a flag that you or I might regard as red, white and blue is in fact red, white, and blue. (The rule has the potential to introduce enough unnecessary pauses to your prose to make a shopping list read like something by Pinter.)

The furore led many people to assume that Oxford University Press, champion of the eponymous comma, had changed sides – a typical reaction was “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals” – but, as ends of the world go, the truth was distinctly un-apocalyptic.

It turned out that a writing guide produced some time ago by the university’s public affairs directorate for press releases and internal communication had advised:

The comma

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’:
They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:
The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

The Guardian blogger gave good advice: In short, it’s as unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one. The best rule is common sense.

One Response to It was great to see the comma-nists at war, but Vampire Weekend puts things in perspective

  1. PhilBeeNZ says:

    Rather rich really, when one considers how Americans have BUTCHERED the English language!

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