Friday, January 17, 2014

Death of the Oxford Comma? Of Course

I read with glee (in some cases) and angst (in others) as the world of teachers, writers and common people weighed in on the apparent loss of the Oxford comma. The death of the comma turned out to be in error; it was just the Oxford public relations department that was dropping the comma, not the university as a whole. The fire storm that started because of the rumored demise amused me. When I first saw the news, I had only one thought.

What took Oxford so long?

I am a man raised in journalism. Journalists rely on Associated Press style, which regards the Oxford comma as an unnecessary intruder. It should be written like this, "The American flag is red, white and blue," and not this, "The American flag is red, white, and blue." The Oxford comma died a quiet death in my world during my middle years in college. I first displayed this lack of respect for the Oxford dictates while writing a short piece of fiction for an upper-level English class. The instructor noted my "error," and I countered by saying that there was no such error because I was being trained as a journalist, and newspaper folks didn't think much of the Oxford comma. He said he would take my journalism training into account, but he added (quite gently) that the comma has a justifiable purpose even if the AP doesn't agree.

My biggest laugh in this debate came a couple of years ago when I was reading the blog of a young literary agent in New York City. She defended the Oxford comma with the passion with which a mother would defend one of her children. It must be retained for the love of the language, she wrote. She was adamant about that. What caused me to laugh was that she felt it necessary to drop an f-bomb into her writing. I had to wonder, what hurts the English language more, the absence of a comma or the younger generation's overuse of the f-word as noun, verb, adjective and adverb? I argue that the f-bomb is more abusive, unless, of course, you are in the throes of passion and find it convenient to utter the word into your partner's ear, or creating a particular character who injects that term into everyday usage (which I do in my novels).

Now, I try to ignore the AP influences in my manuscripts and insert the Oxford comma. I am sure I am probably 50/50 in using "proper English." Those journalist's ways are so entrenched that they go on auto pilot. I am not a lazy editor. I believe spelling, grammar and syntax are vital and must be defended. I am just not going feel as if I have committed a faux pas if I omit an Oxford comma here or there. So there. Deal with it.

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