Grammar wars

Mary Elizabeth Williams from Salon has just published a defense of the Oxford comma, and I hereby nominate her opening paragraph as one of the best and nerdiest things ever written:

Grammar lovers today were saddened, shocked, and mightily displeased at the news that the P.R. department of the University of Oxford has decided to drop the comma for which it is so justly famed. As GalleyCat reported, the university’s new style guide advises writers, “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.” Cue the collective gasps of horror. The last time the nerd community was this cruelly betrayed, George Lucas was sitting at his desk, thinking, “I shall call him Jar Jar.”

Now, the non-grammar nerds among you may rate Oxford’s killing of the serial comma considerably lower on the Stratospherically Horrifying Scale than the invention of Jar Jar Binks, but I would respectfully point out that Jar Jar Binks has already been consigned to the dustbin of history and is unworthy of further concern. The serial comma is relevant right now, every minute, and of immense importance. If you don’t believe me, check out the comments on Williams’ article. At last count, there were 124 of them, most of which are breathing fire. The very first one starts out, “Over my dead body,” the next one says, “I’ll never give you up, Serial Comma!” and a little further down we have “Good riddance!” and “Useless.”

(I have to admit that this one is my favorite: “I’m sorry, but until we get the apostrophe under control, the comma can wait.”)

Williams herself comes out as firmly in the pro-serial camp:

I can now reveal that for years one of our great roiling internal tumults was over the serial comma. Our house style, imposed largely by the recently departed despot King Kaufman, was opposed to it. I am, clearly, violently in favor of it, and have spent the better part of the last 15 years enduring the pain of watching our editors systematically remove it from my stories. Oh, how it burns!

Ms. Williams, I sympathize! I was also trained to use the Oxford comma, until I went to work for a public aquarium where our own editing despot forbade its usage. For seven years I underwent vicious retraining. Then I began working for a state university, where the style rule was pro-serial comma. I had to retrain my retraining. The result has been a hopelessly muddled brain and a terribly inconsistent style. I recently read about the damage that coaches of professional athletes can do when they try to retrain a tennis player’s serve, or a golf player’s swing. The conflicting instructions, piled on top of years of prior training that had become instinct, can gum up the works and topple the athlete’s natural grace into a stumbling, awkward disaster. This is exactly what happens to grammar nerds who are jerked around by conflicting style rules.

So I am hereby declaring myself in favor of the Oxford/serial comma. As it turns out, so is Oxford. Apparently the whole furor was a misunderstanding, and in fact “the edict to eschew the serial comma was only for press releases and internal communication” at the university.


Now, about those apostrophes…


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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15 Responses to Grammar wars

  1. Kitty Montana says:

    I’ve been reading your posts for sometime now, revelling in their intuitiveness, interesting subject matter, fantastic pictures, and above all the sheer unabashed and indiscriminate geekiness which typically ensues.

    I have been a silent reading admirer, never feeling the need to comment until now, and all I want to say is this is pushing the boundaries of geekiness to a new level and bravo!

    I’ve been suffering from a post-Glastonbury cold and feeling quite sorry for myself until I read this, it really brightened my day, so thank you!

  2. Power Wench says:

    Gawd, don’t get me started on those apostrophes! Over here I swear the common person no longer has *any* idea of the difference between plural and possessive. When in doubt – or not – throw in an apostrophe before that final letter “s”. Makes me want to scream!

    • oregon expat says:

      Does that mean you don’t want to see the Flickr pool of “apostrophe abuse” photos? Here’s my favorite:

      I'm in charge ....

      • Scout says:

        That was scary Fletcher. I can only handle ignorance in small doses and that was most definitely an apostrophe abuse overload. I hope no permanent damage was done to the grammar center of my brain:p

      • Even I, a grammar offender (though never intentionally), was horrified at this photo. I’m moving. Know what book I am taking? My dictionary. That’s it. I love the dictionary.

    • JJ says:

      Ditto to that…

      I want to rip the paper or sign, throw it down and stomp while chanting- NO, NO, NO!

  3. Renner says:

    Now I have Oxford Comma by Vampire Weekend stuck in my head.

  4. Scout says:

    I think those of us who speak/write in English (especially if we move from place to place) are destined to suffer from the effects of retraining. In high school we didn’t use the Oxford comma, at Uni we did. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

    I grew up in Canada so we have the most mixed up use of the English language going. American’s, at least, are consistent in how they’ve changed it. The ‘s’ becomes a ‘z’ in realize, specialize,etc… (we did that in Canada too), the ‘u’ gets dropped from color (we kept it in Canada).

    Having lived in all three countries I don’t know if I will ever have consistency in my writing ever again! Especially with the s’s and z’s (which I still call zed rather than zee… just can’t seem to make the switch much to my American friends’ amusement)

    • Inge says:

      Ohhh thank you, thank you, thank you for finally revealing this to me. And i do mean this seriously. I always thought i had to write realise and such, but then Word was always correcting that. I never understood how i could have been wrong about so many verbs. But today you’ve explained it. Thank you. Such a relief to know i didn’t lose my mind completely once i left school. *a biggggg hug*

  5. snjr22 says:

    Did you see the tweet from Bloomsbury press? Screen capture for you, if not:

    Until a few years ago, I didn’t think *anyone* used the serial comma unless submitting a manuscript to Oxford University Press. It wasn’t until I relocated to the midwest from the far left corner of the U.S. that people started giving me grief about my lack of serial commas. Neither my partner nor I use them, and I thought it was a regional preference, but you’ve proved me wrong.

  6. oregon expat says:

    Scout: The good part is that we Americans think British/Canadian spelling variations are charming. So you have that going for you.

    snjr22: LOL! Excellent tweet.

  7. JBrandao says:

    how DARE she, compare some comma with the demon-spawn that is Jar-Jar Binks? Outrageous!


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