A non-pedant’s defence of the Oxford comma

The humble Oxford comma

Harry Mount, writing in the UK’s Telegraph (republished in The Age today) admonishes Oxford University Press for bowing to pressure from vocal pedants on Twitter to keep the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) in their updated stylebook. It’s an outdated form of punctuation whose time is up, Mount writes.

The Oxford comma is entering that zombie half-life where all dying grammatical rules survive for a while — appreciated only by the prissy and the fussy.

It turned out this was not case, as Media Bistro’s GalleyCat corrected, it was merely a style recommendation from Oxford University’s public affairs department (not the vaunted Press – a separate organisation) on the preparation of media releases. This in itself brings up questions about how much checking The Age does before running four-day-old opinion pieces from other publications, but also raises an interesting point about the use of punctuation to clearly communicate meaning.

Depending on who you ask, I am either a stuff-shirt pedant or a freewheeling anarchist when it comes to language and grammar. It is true that I get irate at unnecessary and incorrect use of exclamation marks and visibly shudder at newly minted web-centric phrases, such as ‘infographic’, ‘webinar’ and ‘twitterverse’.

You’ll note the deliberate absence of the Oxford comma in that last sentence. This is the point where I am in absolute agreement with Mr Mount. It’s utterly unnecessary for such a short list, adds nothing to the understanding of the sentence, and distracts the readers by breaking their flow.

See what I did there?

While I agree with Mount, that the Oxford is superfluous for a compilation of single word or brief items, this much maligned comma fulfills an important role in more descriptive lists – such as in the previous paragraph. In this case the Oxford adds to the readability of the sentence and helps effectively convey its message. After all, the purpose of language, with all its attendant rules of grammar and punctuation, is to communicate information. Be it for the purposes of poetic and artistic expression or to clearly convey argument and fact.

So, to use the Oxford comma or not? Personally, only at the end of a list of long or descriptive items. More generally, the rule with punctuation should be: whatever punctuation clearly communicates the intended meaning. In this regard the Oxford comma is still a useful punctuational tool and hardly entering the “zombie half-life” Mount describes.

On the subject of pedants, I will leave the last word to the ever articulate Stephen Fry, a modern master of language and its ever evolving nature.

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