The Joys of an Oxfordless Comma

The Joys of an Oxfordless Comma

First of all, let me say this: I am no comma hater. I love the comma. I overuse the comma. The comma is the gilt flourish of a sentence, framing one idea and then moving onto the next. It is a glorious, emphatic and multi-faceted thing, the “fuck” of punctuation. “Fuck this fucking motherfucker”; “Fuck, this fucking motherfucker”; “Fuck this, fucking motherfucker”; and “Fuck this fucking, motherfucker” all take on wonderfully subtle differentiations, thanks to the motherfucking comma.

This love of the versatile comma brings me to the joy I felt when I heard that a prominent style guide at the University of Oxford was no longer going to recommend the use of the “Oxford comma”, a vestigial piece of academic fussery that all was all too often a nit-picky speedbump on the highway of language rather than an instructive signpost. Take the previously cited example of “dicks, boobs, and asses”, with the Oxford comma placed after “boobs” as a matter of proscriptive course. Defenders of the Oxford comma would argue that it makes clear that “boobs” and “asses” are two separate elements. If you need a comma to tell you this, you are probably both a boob and an ass, on top of not getting any.

The further examples given in defense of the Oxford comma simply aren’t relevant, as the university has wisely included the stipulation in their branding toolkit that additional commas should used “when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity”. This was never the sole purview of the Oxford comma, but in relinquishing those claims, the University acknowledges the universality of the comma as an indicator of context. It’s a very 21st-century ideal: make it free and the people will use it, expand it and make it their own. The repeal of that one silly rule also enables a legion of writers to carry on doing what they already do without the fear of draconian judgment and punishment, an effect similar to that which, say, the repeal of marijuana sentencing laws would have.

All this brings us to one final point where Oxford has made advances in the realm of linguistic clarity and elegance: punctuation inside and outside of quotation marks. The current Chicago Manual of Style regime in the United States grotesquely forces all punctuation inside of quotations marks, irrespective of intent and form, like cougars in jeggings. The Oxford branding toolkit, the Linguistic Society of North America and Wikipedia have all adopted the enlightened “logical punctuation” stand, wherein the context of the quotation is the indicator of where the appropriate punctuation is placed. Newly disenfranchised defenders of the Oxford comma should pick up the standard of logical punctuation and carry that proudly forward, as this article does. You probably didn’t even notice. You’re probably too busy cruising down the highway with a joint and some Vampire Weekend.

Carl Atiya Swanson

Illustration by Jay Gabler, from photo by Tejvan Photos (Creative Commons)