Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The day I defended our grammatical right to choose, or why people need to stop arguing about the Oxford comma.

You know what I am SUPER sick of? THIS PICTURE:

I appreciate its humour. I really do. The bottom picture? HILAIR. (Okay, I've never said "hilair" before in my life. It felt weird.)

WAIT. WAIT. Do you want to know what I just did? I was seriously IN THE MIDDLE of writing a works cited page for a response paper I was working on...like all it says right now is:

Works Cited  
Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds

That's not even the full title!! And I have the book open on my lap as if I'm going to get the rest of the information out of it but I HAVEN'T DONE IT. How did I end up here writing about strippers and Oxford commas? Let's try this again.

Okay. Works cited done. Back to the commas and the strippers. I am not sick of this picture because it's not funny. And I'm sick of it only partially because it's been circulating for like a year or so now and it still pops up in my news feed every once in a while and people are all like "LOLOLOLOLOL punctuation is funny" and I'm all like SERIOUSLY AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS SEEN THIS 900 TIMES? STOP LAUGHING. AND ALSO I'VE BEEN TRYING TO CONVINCE PEOPLE TO PAY ATTENTION TO PUNCTUATION MY ENTIRE LIFE AND THIS IS WHAT IT TOOK TO GET YOU TO PAY ATTENTION? DEAD WORLD LEADERS IN LINGERIE?

The real reason I'm sick of this picture is because people use it as an excuse to get into a Facebook photo comments debate about the Oxford comma. First of all, debates should just not take place there. Too many people get too many notifications they don't want and inevitably the conversation turns into one person saying "I CAN'T TRUST YOU BECAUSE YOU SPELLED SOMETHING WRONG" and the other person responding "ONLY PRETENSHUS DOUCHEBAGS CORRECT SPELLING ON FACEBOOK," which is hilarious in this instance because the entire argument was about a comma in the first place and also they spelled "pretentious" wrong because only pretentious people know how to spell that. Second of all, THIS DEBATE IS STUPID. Yes, there are instances where the Oxford comma clears up possible misunderstandings, like when you're inviting the strippers, JFK and Stalin somewhere, or when you're having eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast. (Is the orange juice on the toast or alongside it?!?! What?!?! How can I tell?!?! THINK ABOUT IT, YOU KNOB!) But you know what? Sometimes the Oxford comma is the CAUSE of these misunderstandings. What if I write: "We invited JFK, the stripper, and Stalin"? OMG THAT SOUNDS LIKE JFK IS A STRIPPER. I'm so funny.

So here's the deal. Sometimes using the Oxford comma can cause problems, and sometimes not using the Oxford comma can cause problems. And sometimes these problems are funny! And we should totally giggle about them! But using the Oxford comma (or not) is a stylistic choice. Neither way is right or wrong. If you're following a specific style guide, check with that style guide to see if they use it or not and then do what the style guide says. As Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Henson point out in The Great Typo Hunt, the Associated Press style guide eliminates "anything deemed unnecessary for communicating an idea," including the Oxford (or serial) comma (81). (LOOK. I cited it. That's how professional I'm being about this.) From what I remember about copy editing for my undergraduate student newspaper, the Canadian Press style guide doesn't use the Oxford comma either. I have just consulted my copy of the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and apparently MLA uses the Oxford comma (67), although I don't. Here is what Lynne Truss has to say about it in her book Eats, Shoot and Leaves:
See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken. Oh, the Oxford comma..... In Britain, where standard usage is to leave it out, there are those who put it in--including, interestingly, Fowler's Modern English Usage. In America, conversely, where standard usage is to leave it in, there are those who make a point of removing it (especially journalists).... My own feeling is that one shouldn't be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn't. (84-85)
The woman, who calls herself a stickler and was berated by many (including Deck and Henson) for being too strict with the rules, says it doesn't matter.

So I don't care what you have to say about it. I refuse to argue with you about it. You can use it, or you can leave it out. It's a stylistic choice. And I believe in your right to choose to make your sentences as clear or as opaque as you like. If you want people to think your mother is a pirate, go ahead and write, "I invited my mother, a pirate, and my high school English teacher." (Regardless of whether or not your mother is the pirate, this sounds like a fascinating get-together.) Please respect others' right to make this choice.

The (soon-to-be) Master has spoken. Get over it.

In other news, this video is HILAIR. No strippers. No commas! Just one word.


  1. Man, I am RIGHT there with you about being sick of that picture. This post was hilair ;)

    1. Haha thanks! And I am super excited right now because the "reply" button for the comments just worked for the first time! I can reply to comments now! Yay!

  2. I had someone recently edit a paper of mine and they added in a whole bunch of Oxford commas. You made me want to shout at them to say it was a stylistic choice. But I didn't get the chance...