Speaking of commas…

As she was busy making us some sandwiches for dinner the wife asked me, “What’s an Oxford comma?” This, of course, in reference to my closing lines in yesterday’s post. To her great consternation I burst out in laughter, not because I thought the question silly (two years ago I did not know of the Oxford comma, and I’d taught high school English for five years), but because at that moment I was reading a rather entertaining discussion of the serial comma (to use it’s more humble name) by Mary Norris, Comma Queen and copy editor at The New Yorker.

Holy Writ is a long read, but very much worth it. Thanks to R.A.B. over at You Knew What I Meant for sharing this.

Also, four for four. I’ve no idea what’s going on this week. I appear to be slipping back into my blogging habits from back when I started out. Let’s see how long I can keep it up. Tomorrow there will be a quiz (unless there isn’t 😉 )

14 thoughts on “Speaking of commas…

  1. I was forced to drop the Oxford comma, although I didn’t k ow what it was called back then. Now I’m older (hardly wiser, but less concerned about other peoples censure) I’m thinking of reverting to it. Or just popping random commas in to see if it annoys people.

    1. I believe both people who embrace it unconditionally and people who ban it is wrong. Use it when it’s necessary, don’t when it’s not. (I admit said necessity is often a judgement call 😉 )

  2. It’s also known as the Harvard comma, presumably depending which side of the Atlantic the user happens to be on. Strunk and White frown on it, but I think it’s useful at times. I am at a loss to know how it got named after universities, though I think it’s appropriate it’s Oxford rather than Cambridge or London. After all, Oxford’s where Tolkien taught (and he was also, I believe, responsible for writing the definition of the word ‘walrus’ in the OED…)

    1. I think the article mentions it’s called the Oxford comma because using it is standard practice for the Oxford University Press. I’m sure they’re not the only university press, or any organisation involved in publication for that matter, where that’s the case, but they probably did it first.

      I wonder what Strunk and White would have made of The New Yorker‘s prolific use of commas. I also wonder now what the Chicago Manual of Style‘s position is on the serial comma.

    1. After reading that article I Googled her, and yes, I also want her book. I’d suggest whichever one of us gets it first lends it to the other, but the logistics of doing that would be very complicated indeed 😉

  3. I never heard of an Oxford comma before I moved to the UK–it was just the series comma, and in publishing seemed to be the preferred style, since it left room for ambiguity. Plus you didn’t have to think about it.

    1. In my native Afrikaans I was taught never to use a comma before “and” and without a thought applied that rule to English as well. But using it makes sense, so much so that I’m now considering digging deeper into Afrikaans grammar to see if it does not also have a version of the serial comma that we were just never taught in school. I did think that article was a tad heavy on the commas. On the other hand, reading the comma queen’s explanation for those commas, they make sense. That’s what I love about the English language: the rules are so clear and unambiguous.

    2. I looked up the Afrikaans usage. In Afrikaans a comma is only used before “en/and” if 1) “and” is used as a conjunction, 2) to indicate that the second clause changes direction from the first, and 3) to avoid confusion, but never in a list. It seems to me like the Afrikaans usage pretty much follows the intent behind the English serial comma, though it’s much more rigid in its application. I suppose that’s the benefit of having a young language that’s only spoken in one part of the world – it’s easy to ensure uniformity in spelling and grammar. English missed that bus centuries ago.

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