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I “Give a Fuck About the Oxford Comma”

Vanity Fair Executive Online Editor Michael Hogan interviewed the Columbia-educated band Vampire Weekend about their controversial, at least in punctuation circles, song Oxford Comma. The opening line, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” raises eyebrows for those of us who do.

While the song’s overall meaning has sparked lively, though authority devoid, debate, perhaps the most discussed line is that first one. Most sources come to the conclusion that the meaning is sometimes we get wrapped up in the details and miss the big picture. Point taken.

So why do care? Why do I want to cry a little tear every time I have to delete an Oxford comma in my newspaper copy because it isn’t part of AP style? There are basically two sides of the debate: the use and the use-nots.

On one side, people argue that it’s stupid to care about the Oxford comma because as long as you get the gist of what’s being said, correct punctuation doesn’t matter.

Other, more academically inclined non-Oxford comma users stress that reliance on the mark signifies a poorly constructed sentence. It also fails to give the reader much credit in the realm of logical, deductive reasoning.

The other side of the word nerd debate argues that the Oxford comma is important to provide clarity of meaning in the written word. Using it regularly provides consistency and specificity.

I think both lines of thought are right and here’s why: Punctuation exists to facilitate a clearer understanding of the written word.

Punctuation makes up a major section of the writer’s toolbox in working to convey an idea. But it’s still simply a tool, not the end product.

If punctuation gets in the way of meaning, then by all means modify. But it lives to serve: its purpose is one of helpfulness, not hindrance.

One example I found in the Oxford Comma debate was this dedicatory sentence: “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Steadfast believers in the Oxford Comma argued that the lack of the second comma makes this sentence imply that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God.

Non-Oxford Comma users point out that the notion is so ridiculous that readers will inevitably understand that it’s a three-person list.

That’s probably true, but that’s a laugh and a thought later – time wasted trying to figure out the writer’s meaning instead of doing something with that meaning (and losing come credibility in the mean time).

So I give a fuck about the Oxford Comma because I give a fuck about clarity and meaning. To me, using it most of the time seems the simplest, most foolproof way to avoid ambiguity.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have an opinion. Hit me up in the comments section. But please don’t leave your “diction dripping with disdain.”




5 Comments

  1. Glenn Hopp wrote:

    I have always referred to the Oxford comma as the serial comma, and I completely agree that it should be used for clarity. In expressing this opinion, I write disdainlessly. I do see the danger of reading the sample sentence as suggesting that Ayn Rand and God had sex to produce that dedication writer, which knowing Ayn Rand’s overall outlook and stance on the virtue of selfishness would not be so unrealistic. And I must say that the beautiful apostrophe (curved and all) in the masthead makes me feel so empowered. One modest suggestion and it is done! If I next ask for $20, should I start checking my mailbox?

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:20 PM | Permalink
  2. Jason Schaefer wrote:

    I’m all for the Oxford comma. (Some rules you shouldn’t break.) Instead, I offer we vary the rules of the common contraction, (if such rules exist) such as expanding the opportunities to use “‘ll” and “‘d”: Licking envelopes’ll make you sick if you do it all day. Martin’d love to do it for you; he’s got work tomorrow. Any words for these examples, Tricia?

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 8:25 PM | Permalink
  3. I support that concept – people already do it, so it should be represented in the written word. The double L and D come up a lot when I’m writing out quotes from interviews and I debate whether to reflect that in the quote since it’s not grammatically correct but it’s how the person spoke. Most of the time I opt for preserving the voice but not making someone sound stupid.

    The concept of the contraction is established so adding more options seems like a natural growth of language. This is one instance that I’d totally back descriptive versus prescriptive grammar (and I’m planning a whole blog entry on that topic at your suggestion!).

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 8:34 PM | Permalink
  4. Yeah, but see if I said serial comma, I would have lost my whole pop culture tie in :-) And yes, I’m happy to oblige modest suggestions I can figure out… but they don’t pay me very much otherwise I’d totally send you money, mostly for the amusement factor.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 8:36 PM | Permalink
  5. Glenn Hopp wrote:

    I do think that descriptive overrules prescriptive, but I can see a future point where things get so loose that I could reverse that point of view and get really Nazi on it.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 10:57 AM | Permalink

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