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…