Tag Archives: Oxford comma

Oxford & Cambridge: is punctuation the new battleground for an old rivalry?

The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is coming up on Sunday. Will Oxford take the trophy back from Cambridge, who were victorious in their latest row-off last year? Tension is mounting in the historic rivalry between the famous British universities – and today it goes beyond the coxes and crews and the battle of the Blues. As reported this morning in the Cambridge Herald, Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma.” Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford or serial comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — i.e. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the Cambridge Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, texts, DMs and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full Cambridge Herald article here.

We didn’t see this one coming!


In the news … (Feb 27)


TGIF. Language and usage in the news this month: confessions of a comma queen; the possible death of “uh”; a town torn apart by an apostrophe; the mid-Atlantic language mash-up; some non-translatable idioms; what your pronunciation says about you; and a critique of Wikipedia’s grammar vigilante. Continue reading

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.”