Comma causing commotion

July 06, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |
  • Rowland

The outrage is palpable. With the force of a thousand sticky notes, it pounds through the halls of college English departments, newsrooms and publishing houses.

Or should I say “college English departments, newsrooms, and publishing houses?”

There’s no difference between the two? I can tell you’re not Sinclair Lewis.

Check that little squiggle after the word “newsrooms.” This is what is known as the Oxford comma, the one that comes before the word “and” in a series, such as red, white, and blue.

Except that, being a newspaper, you will never see the Oxford comma in our pages because we, as journalists, do not believe it exists. We have been at war with institutions that believe in it, most notably Oxford University, the grandnanny of the English language, for which the comma is named.

But then last week — complete and total surrender! The Oxford University issued a new style book that said, “As a general rule, do not use the Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c.’”

What followed was Pandemonium. You have not seen nerds this excited since King Arthur defeated the Knights Who Say Ni.

From one side came huzzahs of the practical press, which has been whittling away at punctuation since Mark Twain supposedly said of the comma, “when in doubt, leave it out.”

On the other side was outrage of institutionalized literature, summed up thusly by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon: “The last time the nerd community was this cruelly betrayed, George Lucas was sitting at his desk, thinking, ‘I shall call him Jar Jar.’”

They trotted out that hoary example of why the Oxford comma is relevant: “I would like to thank my parents, God and Janis Joplin.”

OK, so it matters in one sentence out of 300 trillion. Fine.

Now I realize that many of you are reading this and thinking, “People would really make a huge deal about an overhyped, media-driven melodrama such as this?” All I can say is that if you are hanging on every word of the Casey Anthony trial, you have no room to talk.

I confess, I lean away from commas when given the chance. They tend to chop up a sentence, sort of like riding your bicycle on the railroad tracks. This made it difficult when I taught college English. I would lecture against using the Oxford comma for the sake of practicality. But invariably, some little snot would raise her hand during class and point out multiple cases of Oxford comma usage in the English textbook itself.

Finally, I just told them to use the comma if they were writing for any organization that was funded by the government, but when they were writing for the real world, ditch it. It’s kind of like those hats women can get away with at the Kentucky Derby but that would get them quickly ushered out of any other establishment in the nation.

But then, just as I was thinking we could put the whole issue behind us and move on, Oxford University did what any good liberal major would do when confronted with a fight: It turned tail and ran.

The Oxford comma, said Oxford, only applied to the Oxford PR Department, and not Oxford itself.


Personally, I think Oxford has issues that commas can’t begin to clear up.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at Tune in to the Rowland Rant on, on or on Antietam Cable’s WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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