I’ll Oxford your comma, if you know what I’m saying, love

September 2, 2009


I had a crisis of identity today. In editing some text this morning, I made an active decision to leave out an Oxford comma for reasons of sentence intent and flow. I feel a little shaky, what with this newfound devil-may-care attitude.

You must understand, of course, what a breakthrough this is for me. For those who do not recognize the term “Oxford comma,” it is also known as the serial comma. It is the comma in a list or series that occurs right before the conjunction. For example: “The things I would like to do before I die include learning to make elaborate shadow puppets, growing another arm, and becoming Phylicia Rashad (though, preferably not in that order).” The Oxford comma comes just between “arm” and “and”. If this seems like a silly thing to fret about, consider a charmingly amusing faux pas by The Times. (Exerpt from Wikipedia):

Unresolved ambiguity

The Times once published an unintentionally humorous description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, noting that “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.

So, you see, in my opinion, it is always necessary for the sake of clarity, if only to keep certain aspects of Mr. Mandela’s life private. (I assume that’s what he’s holding there).

The Oxford comma. The Oxford comma. It’s a lovely little thing, no? No? Then you must be from the Associated Press. The Oxford comma is one of the most argued over issues in editing, and I am a doting devotee of its use.

Today I voluntarily left it out. The sentence just didn’t sound as descriptive with it in there. I went back and forth over this for a good four minutes or so before I got ridiculously bored, overdosed on triviality, and just removed the damn thing. I made a decision as an editor. A stylistic decision. The same decisiveness that allowed me to make that last sentence a fragment.

It was so liberating, not being a robotic grammar slave to the style manual I drool over so much. I just did it, and now it gets to stay like that for all to read. Massive nerdy god complex here; please forgive me. My head is swimming. Perhaps I’ll do it again sometime soon. And then every little grammatical thing will be up for question, and all of the American English language will bow to my omnipotent backspace key! Oh, dear god, the power. Pardon me, but I might just go run with scissors … before … leaping right into Lake Michigan minutes after a meal for a casual swim!

Look for me on the 5 o’clock news raving deliriously up and down the financial district, disheveled and covered in red pen ink.

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