The Oxford comma: love it, hate it, or don’t care?

The Guardian takes a lighthearted look at one of Oxford’s most controversial exports.

Pass notes No 3,002: The Oxford comma

Elitist and irritating, or useful and precise? All you need to know about the controversial punctuation mark

Sunday 3 July 2011

Age: As old as the hills, Methuselah, and time itself.

Appearance: Looks just like any other comma.

So what makes it different? It’s rarer, only appearing after the penultimate item in a list of three or more objects, and even then only as and when the writer feels it necessary. Many won’t use it all, considering it ugly, elitist, and redundant. See?

Gah, it’s just a waste of a very small amount of ink. Which is why Oxford University’s PR team now advise their staff not to use it, a decision that kicked off a Twitter-storm of pedantic debate when it was mistakenly reported that publishers Oxford University Press had elected to put its beloved punctuation mark out to pasture. It has not.

But why does anyone care? You’re not the first to ask that question. In fact, it was posed publicly three years ago, in slightly swearier tones, by indie pop band Vampire Weekend, with their single Oxford Comma.

And the answer was? Because it saves confusion.

How so? Well, say I tell you that this week I’ve been listening to two of the most over-rated bands in the world, Vampire Weekend and the Killers. Without the wee Oxonian squiggle, that will read as if I’ve listened to just two bands and they’re both over-rated.

And with it? Pop in an Oxford comma and it’s all hunky-dory; I’ve listened to four bands and Vampire Weekend deserve every well-won scrap of their critical acclaim. Similarly, in a list containing conjoined items (bacon and egg, ladies and gentlemen, French and Saunders), the use of the OxCom can be a life-saver.

As you found out while listening to Beirut, Noah and The Whale and Vampire Weekend? Exactly. Although “The Whale and Vampire Weekend” sounds like an awesome band.

And an awesome weekend. True, true, and true.

Do say: “They’re divisive, annoying, and often unnecessary, but there is a time and a place for them.”

Don’t say: “Plus they do have some catchy tunes.”