Copy That: The Oxford Comma

Monday, January 25, 2016 - 9:15pm

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Illustration by Emilie Farrugia

 

I’ve always been a bit of a know-it-all. I can’t resist the compulsion to correct, which is annoying to both me and the people around me. However, this habit combined with my love of the written word is valued at the copy desk. Since joining the desk and spending time with many like-minded individuals with whom I can discuss critical issues like the tenses of lay and lie (if you don’t know, look it up; it’s way more confusing than calculus and I’m an English major), I’ve developed some strong opinions on topics about which most people couldn’t care less. Many grammar rules are black and white (like your versus you’re — truly, there’s no way to get around the fact that they are two different words with two different meanings), but other rules are more flexible, and therefore up for debate among nerds like me.

One of the most hotly debated grammar rules both at the copy desk of The Michigan Daily and in the grammar-geek world at large is that of the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is the optional comma that is placed before the word “and” at the end of a list. It may seem silly to feel so passionately about something as tiny as a comma, but I care. OK, yes, it’s my job to care, but conversely I do this job because I care. I'd argue that punctuation and grammar rules like the Oxford comma are important and deserving of thought because they create very real changes in meaning that people generally should care about if they want to communicate clearly. For example, a much-used illustration of the importance of this seemingly insignificant piece of punctuation is a sentence published in The Times that read, “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Now we’re all unsure if Nelson Mandela lived to be an 800-year-old demigod or collected dildos. Sorry, Nelson Mandela — if only everyone was as concerned about punctuation as the copy desk.

The Michigan Daily follows AP style guidelines, which (unfortunately for some opinionated writers and editors) does not allow for the Oxford comma. In order to avoid confusion, the copy desk steps in to save someone closer to home from the same fate as The Times and Nelson Mandela.

Even outside of publishing, this rule could affect your communications. Let’s say you send a text message to your friend that says, “Can you please invite the broomball players, Steve and George to our party?” Now, if your friend reads that based on the punctuation, you’re stuck with only two people invited to your party. But you wanted all of the broomball players! And you bought party favors accordingly! What a tragedy!

To this day the debate rages on about the Oxford comma, but the fact of the matter is that both ways of using it are common, and neither is without its flaws. However, if you care like I do, you’d probably pick a side. Even though you won’t catch an Oxford comma in the Daily because I grudgingly remove them almost every day, I am definitely Team Oxford Comma.