If motherhood has taught me one thing … it’s probably not what you think. It is how to proficiently waste time on the internet. Before my son made the transition from vocal, but largely immobile, blobby entity to premium battery-powered howler monkey, my daily routine as a primary care-giver consisted of periodic spurts of frenzied activity – which had more to do with my perma-panicked first-time parent mindset than with my son, still months away from his gravity-testing daredevil phase at that time – interspersed with the occasional hour of respite, aka nap time. Since my “breaks” were too short for, say, getting properly engrossed in a book, I turned to my tablet. Once the Angry Birds addiction subsided, I was left with the internet. And that great, big, black hole that is the blogosphere.

This is just a long-winded way (sorry!) of telling you that I’ve gotten into some dubious sites over the past year. No, not that kind of dubious. I’m talking about the kind of sites that would provoke an initial response of “Who thinks of stuff like this?” Evidently, somebody is smart enough to think of it, because a lot of other people are reading it. Including me. One of the sites I stumbled upon is Reblogging Donk. I can’t really explain its purpose or the nature of its charm, but suffice it to say that its sole focus is covering the public antics of one Julia Allison, internet fameball extraordinaire. Don’t worry if you have no idea who she is. It’s not important. That’s not the actual topic of this post. [Hah! I bet you thought I was finally getting close to it. Not yet.] Reading Reblogging Donk has afforded me many hours of Schadenfreude-ian enjoyment, but imagine my surprise when, one day, it also provided a dollop of education. Reading the comments on one of its posts, I was introduced to the Oxford comma.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I am passionate about the written word. But my dedication can be haphazard; I’m fanatical about semantics and spelling, but merely pedantic about grammar, and sometimes downright sloppy about punctuation. I hate reading style manuals – is there anything more snooze-inducing than reading a book about the technicalities of writing? – but I am always interested in picking up tidbits that might help improve my skills. Since I make my living on those skills, it literally pays to polish them up whenever possible.

Enter the Oxford comma.

Chances are that, like me, you’ve used the Oxford comma countless times, without realizing it. [Or, rather, knowing what it was.] Take it away, Wikipedia:

“The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, and sometimes referred to as the series comma) is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, a list of three countries can be punctuated as either “Portugal, Spain, and France” (with the serial comma) or as “Portugal, Spain and France” (without the serial comma). Opinions vary among writers and editors on the usage or avoidance of the serial comma. In American English, the serial comma is standard usage in non-journalistic writing that follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Journalists, however, usually follow the AP Stylebook, which advises against it.”

Neato, huh? OK, you’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal about this comma … and why does it have a hoity-toity name, anyway?” We’ll get to the first question in a second, and as for the second … beats me.

The Oxford comma is important because it can help avoid ambiguity. Ambiguity results in sloppy writing. Sloppy writing derails an otherwise coherent and logical argument; alternately, sloppy writing is, in fact, the sign of sloppy thinking. Either way, not a good thing. Take the example given in Wikipedia’s entry: a fictional book dedication directed “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” At first blush, you might not see an issue with this statement, other than its author’s possibly dubious philosophical inclinations. But take another look. Is the author giving a shout-out to four entities (three human, living or deceased, and one divine), or to only two – a strange conjugal relationship if there ever was one? Without the aid of the Oxford comma, we could never really know.

That is not to say that the Oxford comma can’t cause its own mischief if improperly used, or that it is always a butt-saver. Take, for example, this chuckle-worthy excerpt published in The Times, describing a Peter Ustinov documentary in which “highlights of his global tour include[d] encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Bet you just learned something new about Nelson Mandela … or did you? The addition of an Oxford comma in this case wouldn’t resolve the ambiguity; it would merely rectify any assumptions about Mr. Mandela’s collecting habits, not his demigod status.

Of course, not all instances of missing commas are hilarity-inducing. [And maybe not everyone shares my love of language-based humour.] Some are merely banal. Some, on the other hand, can cost you millions. [No, really. Just ask Rogers Communications.] In order to avoid that occasional real whopper, it’s best to mind your fancy-toff commas at all times. Now that you’ve had a chance to get acquainted with it, you’ll never not think of it every time you write out a three-item list. Trust me on that.

Oh, what the hell! Here’s one last reason why the Oxford comma is the sexiest punctuation mark around [You’ll want to look, it involves strippers. And JFK. And Stalin.]




3 Comments on I went to Oxford and all I got was this lousy comma

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you… I have been sprinkling my prose liberally with the Oxford Comma for years, and various bosses, teachers, etc have been removing it from my work. Remind me to send them the JFK link next time it happens…