Serial comma goes on trial

In case you're also wondering, that is the Oxford comma around the ol' Buccaneer's neck. Grammar Nazi badly wants it back, writes this graphic’s creator, anthrop.

BROADCASTER John Maytham told Cape Town the other day: “Here’s self-confessed grammar Nazi, Stevie Godson.”

I spluttered – which was perhaps not the best way to start a radio interview.

“I’m definitely not a grammar Nazi,” I told him, as I quickly recovered my composure. “They’re scary people – very abusive. I’m more of a grammar grouch.”

Not that I was expecting to be interviewed in the first place. In fact, it was my day off and I was getting ready to take my boisterous puppy for a long walk.

The telephone rang and a voice at the other end introduced himself as Stuart Buchanan, producer of John’s afternoon radio programme on Cape Talk, which was due to air in the next hour or so.

“Have you heard about the fuss over the Oxford comma,” Stuart asked. “The ‘Twitterverse’ has gone mad about it today.”

Fortunately, I had. I have all sorts of little Internet alerts programmed to let me know whenever there’s a grammar kerfuffle going on somewhere in the English-speaking world – and that’s far more often than you’d think.

The buzz that Friday was that Oxford University itself – after whose Oxford University Press the serial comma gets its alternative name – had banned the useful, albeit controversial, little device.

Shock! Horror!

The story caused such a fuss that even news agency giant Associated Press put out a story, and major newspapers in the US and UK had their scribes weighing in on both sides of this particular punctuation divide.

“For the benefit of any listeners who don’t know, what exactly is the Oxford comma,” John asked me.

“It’s another name for the serial comma,” I said, “the one that’s sometimes put before the ‘and’ at the end of a list. It can make all the difference to the sense of a sentence, which is why I’m such a fan.”

I gave him a popular example – changing the names to add some relevance, and perhaps a little humour, to this sometimes dry subject.

“If I was to write ‘I’d like to thank my parents, John Maytham and Madonna’ it would mean that John Maytham and Madonna were my parents,” I explained.

“Stick in the Oxford comma – ‘I’d like to thank my parents, John Maytham, and Madonna’ – and it’s immediately clear I’m thanking four different people.”

Of course, that sentence can be written in other ways to avoid the problem, but sometimes it’s difficult to do that. I used this one only because it was an uncomplicated way to explain the controversial comma without the benefit of being able to write it down.

By the time I appeared on air, the kerfuffle had turned into nothing more than a storm in a style guide – the one belonging to the university’s PR department, which had apparently banned the Oxford comma from press releases and internal communications.

But in the meantime, the original “news” about this simple and, in my opinion, incredibly sensible device had got all sorts of people – young and old – in quite a froth.

Twitter user @KatSheridan was polite but firm. “I will relinquish my Oxford Comma when they pry it from my cold, dead, and cramped fingers,” she tweeted.

And @AbrahamHanover announced: “Things I will defend: My wife, my child, evolution, consent, the virtue of doubt, the serial comma, and they-singular. I am a simple man.”

See how cleverly these word nerds both used the precious little curlicue?

Tweeted someone else: “But, didn’t we always learn no comma before ‘and’?! Our grammar teacher would kill us!”

“Who gives a f**k about an oxford comma,” asked one Evan Michael. His mother must be so proud …

Rather dramatically,, proclaimed Comma Drama Ends: Oxford Rule Stands – GRAMMAR NERDS RALLIED TO DEFENCE OF SERIAL COMMA.

John Maytham reckons it’s refreshing (if surprising) that this kind of thing still matters to so many people, which is why he wanted to talk to me about it after discovering my Word Nerds blog. And I agree.

Author Mark Amidon once said: “Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.”

To that, I’d add punctuation, too. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)


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This entry was posted by stevieg on Thursday, August 25th, 2011 at 10:27 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Amy Potts says:

    Mike and I are probably the last of the punctuated text message users.

    • stevieg says:

      I’m one of that dwindling brigade, too, but it sure seems that way sometimes, doesn’t it? Keep up the good work, Amy. The gods of clarity thank you.

  2. Hear! Hear! Stevie … wear your grammar Nazi badge with pride! Sadly grammar grouches are a dwindling breed and we need people like you to fly the flag!
    Next column … how about something on apostrophes and people who don’t know the difference between it’s and its …? Punctuation rocks!

    • stevieg says:

      It does rock, doesn’t it! As for apostrophes, couldn’t agree more – check out my ‘Apostrophe Catastrophe’ piece listed under tutorials. Maybe I should publish it as a general blog post …

  3. Love, love, love this. And more.

  4. Robynne says:

    The column made me laugh! 🙂 Thanks for sending it to me! I loved it!!! 🙂 XX

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