“Who gives a [expletive] about an Oxford comma?”asks Vampire Weekend. More people than you’d think, I answer.
Oxford commas are normally edited out, in accordance with the AP Manual of Style, but for this piece I am hoping my editors will make an exception. After all, the Oxford comma – the comma that precedes the last item at the end of a series, also called the serial comma – is in danger. Well, sort of, if Twitter is to be believed.
The Oxford comma has long been under attack by a range of fools, style guide writers and casual users of grammar. (See what happens when you leave them out?) But a recently released stylesheet from an Oxford University PR department also urged against their use. If Oxford doesn’t want to save the Oxford comma, then what about the rest of us? To arms!
Endangered species can fend for themselves. But who cares about the ghost frog, the cheetah, or the yellow-eyed penguin? Between the cheetah and the penguin lies a far more precious curlicue. I assume you could eventually reproduce cheetahs using technology from Jurassic Park. But once the Oxford comma is stamped out, it will be impossible to reintroduce into its habitat. “It’ll wipe out the local population of semicolons,” researchers will say. “It’ll rampage through our lists leaving only destruction and mauled ampersands in its wake.”
I beg for the Oxford comma as an admitted Grammar Nazi. According to the dating site OkCupid, those who answer “No” to the question “Do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?” are two times more likely to be religious. This, as anyone with a less-than-complete understanding of correlation and causation will tell you, means that once grammar enters your mind, it swells to gargantuan proportions and swallows up all your other beliefs. You become a Grammar Nazi. You no longer go to church. Instead, you stride purposefully through public parks with a Sharpie, revising all the signs with improperly-placed apostrophes. You can do no other.
We Grammar Nazis are not always correct. But when we spy errors, they make our blood boil. And when we see sweet, useful, and harmless punctuation marks menaced by this cruel world, our hackles rise.
The Oxford Comma is logical, helpful, and innocuous. Leaving it out creates strange bedfellows at the ends of sentences. The comma keeps lists from bleeding into each other — as in the apocryphal dedication, “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” It keeps you from accidentally clumping things that don’t want to be clumped.
I can’t stand people who say that Oxford commas are wasteful. We aren’t in a grammar recession. Why are you hoarding your commas? Are you planning to make a batch of semicolons later? In the Great Depression, my grandfather cut his usage down to one comma per week, on Sundays, so that I could fling them into sentences with wild abandon according to the dictates of grammar.
The Oxford Comma has never approached anyone in the middle of a sentence and created problems for them, unlike other punctuation marks I could mention. Hyphens in the street force you to stop; you are arrested unless you come to a halt and look both ways before crossing to the next clause . But Oxford commas just stand loyally on guard to prevent your yearbook from including such phrases as “I’m grateful to my girlfriends, Magneto and Professor X.”
So it is as a proud Grammar Nazi that I demand that we save the Oxford Comma. They are decorative and offer useful clarification. To get rid of them would be deplorable, foolish, and unnecessary!