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A comma key (Comstock Images)
A comma key (Comstock Images)

Warren Clements: Word Play

The case for and against the Oxford comma Add to ...

When linking three or more elements, some writers place a comma before the "and": bell, book, and candle. That's known as the Oxford comma (or serial comma). Other writers don't use that comma: bell, book and candle.

Wars have been fought over less.

The Oxford comma got its name because Horace Hart, controller of the University Press at Oxford in 1893, compiled a set of rules for use by press employees. It began as a single page, and by 1904 was big enough to be published as a book: Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers. An updated version, New Hart's Rules, appeared in 2002.

Imagine the kerfuffle, then, when Galleycat, a division of the U.S. website mediabistro.com, relayed a tweet last week implying that the Oxford University Press would discard the Oxford comma as of June 30. Bell, book and candle would prevail. Fans of the comma rent their garments and muttered about heresy.

It turned out to have been a misunderstanding. It was Oxford University's public affairs department, and not the OUP, that had decided to stop using the Oxford comma. The OUP said it had no intention of disowning the comma. Peace was restored.

Many will wonder what the fuss was about. The answer concerns the clarity of a sentence. As Lynne Truss proved with her massive bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which was at heart about the accurate placement of commas and apostrophes, a lot of people care about such things. I'm one of them. To judge by the mail, many of this column's readers are, too.

Most newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, shun the Oxford comma, a decision apparently made originally to save space. For me, the habit is so entrenched and the sensitivity so ingrained that encountering the Oxford comma in "apples, peaches, and pears" is like stumbling over a hoe. The comma delays me as a reader when I see no reason to be delayed. Wilson Follett makes the point in Modern American Usage that the comma is not redundant - it's a "separative" device, while the conjunction "and" is connective - yet it trips me up all the same. I invoke Keith Waterhouse in Waterhouse on Newspaper Style: "Commas are not condiments. Do not pepper sentences with them unnecessarily."

But most grammatical guidebooks (hello, Strunk and White; hello, Fowler) prefer the Oxford comma because it has consistency on its side. Those who favour the Oxford comma use it all the time. Those who resist the Oxford comma must nonetheless use it on many occasions to avoid ambiguity or ensure clarity. For instance, the comma helps if a list has more than one "and": He spoke of Jack and Jill, William and Mary, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

In Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner goes so far as to say the argument is "easily answered in favour of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will...."

Not so. Consider this sentence: She invited her father, a tuba player and several ballerinas. It is clear that she invited her father, the musician and the ballerinas. Now insert the Oxford comma: She invited her father, a tuba player, and several ballerinas. Suddenly the father has become a tuba player.

But I cherry-picked that example. For the most part, Garner is right. The Oxford comma would certainly improve this sentence: He played two madrigals, Stairway to Heaven and Smoke on the Water. The question is whether you trust yourself to use the serial comma only when necessary or whether you prefer to use it consistently for your sake and quite possibly the reader's.

In that respect, newspaper writers live dangerously. I throw caution to the wind, laugh in the face of doom and deny employment to the Oxford comma. I shall pay one day for my recklessness. It will be comma kharma. For now, it's the comma before the storm.

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