The comma that divides grammarians.
Last week a wondrously odd little patch of dialogue stumbled to the surface of Boss, a superb but ugly TV series about despicable Chicago politicians. At the centre of this conversation was the vicious Mayor Tom Kane, a tyrannical murderer who has turned out to be the role of a lifetime for, of all people, Kelsey Grammer, heretofore known on TV as a buoyant comic actor.
We are already aware that Kane has severe problems: Much of city council hates him, his wife and daughter despise him, there's a newspaper editor gunning for him and he's recently learned that he suffers from a degenerative, hallucination-inducing neurological condition. Someone has tried to assassinate him but has instead shot his wife. She's now in intensive care and Kane is pacing the halls of the hospital.
And what, at this moment of crisis and chaos, does he choose to worry about? The Oxford comma.
A comma is a humble punctuation mark. It lacks the authority of a period. It has neither the easy flamboyance of the ampersand nor the colon's ability to surprise. Usually a comma just curls obediently at the foot of a word, like a friendly sheepdog.
But the Oxford comma, a.k.a. Harvard comma, a.k.a. serial comma, is a special case. It incites strong feelings. People are for it or against it. It fosters snobbery in some, populism in others. There are those who take pride in knowing what it is but dislike it; they consider it an obsession of the rich or the overly educated.
Kane, who sees himself as a brilliant fellow but also a man of the people, falls in this anti-Oxford group. When his eager new assistant gives him a draft of a statement Kane must soon make for the waiting TV cameras, he hands it back and orders that the Oxford comma be taken out.
"I hate the Oxford comma," Kane says. "I assume you know what that means." The assistant answers, "I'm indifferent myself, but you won't see it again."
The assistant passes the statement to an intern, telling him to cut the Oxford comma. The intern says, "What's an Oxford comma?" The last we hear is the assistant saying, "Did you really just ask me that? F--k if I know."
The Oxford comma is the one that usually comes before the word "and." Supporters of the Oxford comma write sentences such as, "Their names were John, Paul, George, and Ringo." Those who oppose the serial comma write, "Their names were John, Paul, George and Ringo."
The Chicago Manual of Style supports the serial comma, and so do The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Fowler's Modern English Usage and other tradition-oriented guides. Scholarly books and magazines fall into line. The U.S. Government Printing Office style manual says the Oxford comma remains absolutely mandatory, giving as an example "red, white, and blue."
I also write often in the beloved Queen's Quarterly (est. 1893), where the Oxford comma remains solidly established, and we contributors are allowed to comma away to our heart's content.
But newspapers mostly omit it, as The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and the The New York Times style guides recommend. The Post feels we can do without it. This would deprive me of any regular occasion to use it, but fortunately I also write often in the beloved Queen's Quarterly (est. 1893), where the Oxford comma remains solidly established, and we contributors are allowed to comma away to our heart's content.
Tradition-lovers adore the Oxford comma, because it's a bow to history. It's the kind of comma that Henry James liked. It encourages a measured, thoughtful pace. It makes things clearer and avoids ambiguity.
One member of the pro-Oxford faction claims to have found the ultimate proof in a line from a newspaper story about a documentary on Merle Haggard: "Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall." In that sentence (traditionalists argue) one curly little Oxford comma after Kristofferson would have cleared up what otherwise looked like a bizarre error.
An incident in 2011 revealed that the pro-Oxford faction remains alive and determined. The Oxford University Press eliminated the Oxford comma from inter-office memos, press releases and other incidental writing. The reporting on this event left the mistaken impression that the whole Oxford establishment, even the sacred Oxford English Dictionary, had come out against the Oxford comma.
The online Salon magazine ran a story headed "Don't kill the Oxford comma!" It reported that "Grammar lovers were saddened, shocked, and mightily displeased ..." It revealed that within Salon itself over the years "one of our great roiling internal tumults was over the serial comma." But an article in The Daily Telegraph applauded the change, maintaining that the Oxford comma is "a horrible thing" that smacks of smug pedantry and is now beginning a zombie halflife where it will survive "only with the support of the prissy and the fussy."
I loved the passion of readers who responded to the news. Quit picking on a poor little comma, someone pleaded, and someone else announced, "I stand with the Oxford comma till the end." It was suggested that this regrettable event was apparently caused by the global comma shortage. My favourite was a tweet of ultimate defiance: "They can take my Oxford comma from me when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers."
The Oxford comma has other distinctions. So far as I know it's the only punctuation mark ever to appear as the title of a popular song by a major band. Ezra Koenig, a member of Vampire Weekend, recalls that in 2007 he heard about a Columbia University group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma.
The narrator of the song (quite stirring, like many by Vampire Weekend) expresses furious anger at his girlfriend, perhaps for her lack of fidelity, certainly for her lack of truthfulness. It seems she mentioned the Oxford comma in conversation. He replies, at length. The rest is history. Today a firm called Funtonia advertises that it can supply a couple of lines from the song, including the singer's announcement of precisely how little he cares about the Oxford comma, as a ringtone for your smartphone.
Robert Fulford, "Serial Offender." National Post, (Canada) Setember 11, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.
Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture. Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.Copyright © 2012 Robert Fulford
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