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Short Takes: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of the Oxford Comma

Yes, the title is an example of its usage. I’m a card-carrying member of the Save the Oxford Comma camp. (Why ditch a punctuation mark that clarifies? Perhaps because we need more confusion, more unclear writing: yes, that’s it.)

In case you were too busy to notice–at work, at school, or doing something less important than preserving idiosyncrasies of the English language tradition–a pretty large furor was sparked after an anonymous editor tweeted that Oxford University had dropped the Oxford, or serial, comma.

Fake AP Stylebook, the popular online parody site, had some novel advice: “Replace the Oxford comma with the Yale comma. It’s not as prestigious but still gets the job done.”

Have no fear, though: the collapse of civilization was averted, and Strunk and White’s second requisite in the Elementary Rules of Usage was saved. In fact, it turns out all the hubbub was caused by a passage from Oxford’s PR department style guide.

In a piece dissecting the provocative punctuation mark, blogger Stan Carey provides a rather interesting example of the awkward confusion that can be caused by the deletion of the Oxford comma. Here’s a hint: it involves Nelson Mandela, 800-year-old demigods, and a collection of devices best left to the author’s description.

Another great example comes from The Guardian’s David Marsh as he recalls (or so he surmises) a passage from that publication’s style guide: “The guide goes on to say–and I honestly can’t remember if I made up this joke, or stole if from elsewhere–“Sometimes it is essential: compare ???I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ with ???I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.”

Pesky punctuation terrors abound beyond the page, of course: for instance, on road construction signs, or in the sadder and more permanent instance of body art.

Then there’s Lynne Truss, who wrote a book on such mistakes. And there’s Louis Menand, who pointed out all the errors in Truss’s writing via The New Yorker.

Now to take on that appetite-killing virus known as the grocer’s apostrophe.

Maybe the much-beleaguered comma (or its inverted cousin, the apostrophe) will get a break someday. In the meantime, though, there’s a whole blog dedicated to documenting every battle in the good fight. I’m holding out and hopeful, though the numbers aren’t all that promising.