Work & writing by Josh Wilson

September 20, 2021

That damnable ‘Oxford’ comma

By the way, it’s a serial comma. Oxford is in England, didn’t you know?

Ah, but the comma-tariat, they care not for such details. And so we are oppressed, all of us, by the “Oxford” comma’s obtrusive demands for conformity, by its habit of boorishly inserting itself into places where it’s not welcome — like a drunken uncle, shirt untucked, red cheeked and loudmouthed, lurching around the party, crashing all the conversations, insisting that only he knows how it all works.

Inelegant, intrusive, bullying, patriarchal in the most rigid and entitled sense, selectively providing examples that reinforce its case without a full consideration of all the options appropriate to a given medium — the Oxford comma is failing upwards, and has grown far too big for its britches.

Its more genteel cousin, the serial comma, is altogether appropriate (and indeed necessary) in its natural habitat — the complex series.

Stylistically, it also thrives most deservedly in books, scholarly journals, works of fiction, and, of course, magazines, particularly the more self-serious ones with tiny type and Big Ideas.

Where that additional comma — be it modestly serial or hifalutin’ in its Oxford robes and wig — has no business at all is on a website or in an article printed on newsprint.

Unless, of course, it is necessary to avoid ambiguity.

Beyond the formal confines of the Chicago style manual, AP provides an elegant solution for the serial use of commas online and on newsprint, namely, only when clarity demands, such as in the depths of a complex series.

AP’s admonition that the serial comma be engaged only to avoid ambiguity takes into account all the peculiarities that the comma-tariat invoke in support of their oppressive agenda — and liberates both newsprint and the backlit screen from the visual friction and clutter endemic to today’s oversaturated attention economy.

It is an elegant, clean and consistent approach to the use of that small, potent punctuation.

Dense and weighty as neutronium, pointed and demanding like the needle used to pin a butterfly to a mounting board, the comma must be used astutely, carefully, with a sense of the poetry and rhythm inherent in the written word, and alert to the debris and bric-a-brac strewn about the average newspaper page or computer screen.

Be not afraid … stand with us! Together, against the comma-tariat!