Do You Feel Lucky?

(and feel free to comment! My older posts are certainly no less relevant to the burning concerns of the day.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Tough Topics #46: The Oxford Comma

I use the Oxford comma wherever its omission could lead to an alternate reading, and omit it otherwise. You know where people run into trouble? Where their omission or inclusion of the Oxford comma is a point of principle, rather than a decision dependent entirely on content, context, and sense.

People who always omit it risk giving the reader two grammatically valid ways to read the statement. In contracts or in law, this can be fatal.

People who always include it run no risks in terms of the sense they wish to convey. But in using a comma where none is needed - where no alternate reading could arise from its omission - they risk seeming rule-bound, precious, given to stylistic affectations that serve no purpose. Adherent to a principle, without having any feel for its actual use or effect.

The Oxford comma, like every mark of punctuation, is a tool to direct meaning along the writer's desired path. Clarity demands its use where necessary. Elegance and simplicity would seduce us to omit it where its presence adds nothing. There are those who love and some who hate the Oxford comma, but the majority who simply omit it without thought do so out of an instinct for simplicity, and a dislike for needless flourish or ornament.

But we can't lose sight of the controversy! Gratuitous use of the Oxford comma (where its omission could not possibly introduce ambiguity) DOES add something! It signals to the world "I'm Team Oxford Comma!" With all that that implies, and most of what it implies is good. I'm not Team Oxford Comma, but most of those people are pretty funny and great, and it's sweet and wonderful that so tiny a mark could say so much. An Aldis-lamp flash to the like-minded resistance.

The Oxford comma will never die. It will keep barging in where it's not needed, pointing proudly to where it sometimes is. And its opponents will omit it scrupulously, sometimes to the detriment of their case in court, more often to the hilarity of readers who spot the wild ambiguity unleashed. The Oxford comma is the only thing that can leash that beast. Do we need it? Yes.

Do we need it all over the place? Probably not. But you ought to admit, it's a little bit cute.


Steph said...

I am happy to discover that this blog also has a random link. We've already talked about the Oxford Comma quite a bit, but I feel like this post deserves a comment. I love that a simple piece of punctuation can have so much personality. I generally try to avoid the Oxford Comma because I find it unnecessary in most cases, but I do love how it can inspire such passionate conversation about punctuation. It's a showy bit of punctuation,but it should be used sparingly (i.e. only when meaning would otherwise be confusing).

dogimo said...

Thank you so much for redrawing my attention to this piece! I love what I have to say here! All of that came completely out of nowhere, at the time.

"Redrawing" is ugly and wrong there, I strongly feel. Yet to split an infinitive is easy and pleasant!

I have kept "redrawing" in, because I really do feel as if a recurrence of a drawing of attention has occurred, and how else can we say that bang-on? With a HYPHEN? Re-drawing. Redrawing.

I prefer the lack. It implies that there might be something called red rawing going on.

Yep! The Oxford Comma. I had a very well-formed and balanced stance on it without even knowing!

And thank you.

dogimo said...

Oooh, yes, the random button. A loaded blessing, here.

I have to warn you, by way of both caveat and apology, so much of this blog's past 2, 3 years (what there even is of it, anyway - pretty sparse) is just weird, contextless stridency ranting and ramping its way along a meandered and trampled path of the same one-to-three points covered one-to-three times each from gratuitously different angles. To judge from what's left of the road it took, a splattered mudsmear of improbably-elongated churned-under football gridiron where a little more effort could have made a wide and tidy Roman highway, you'd be excused for thinking some leviathanlike behemoth had juggernauted itself along its merry merry way leaving little to no evidence of art, craft, science or indeed, dignity in its passage. But no! It was just me.

Pity. Considering the glory that had gone before.