While far more unites us than divides us, I realize how easy it is these days to segregate the world into different camps. Those who drink Pepsi and those who prefer Coke. Those who wear who pajamas to bed and those who, ahem, don’t. And though I’ll never understand it, those who cheer for the Broncos and those who root for the Raiders.
But I’m writing about a contrast far more stark and of far more consequence.
Those who use the Oxford comma and those who don’t.
Count me among the latter.
For those who have better things to do with their lives than obsess over punctuation — meaning nearly everyone, with the possible exception of mystery novelists and English teachers — let me explain. An Oxford comma appears after the next to the last item in a list of three or more items. For example: red, white, and blue.
The Oxford comma is so named because it traditionally was used by editors, printers and readers at Oxford University Press. Extra credit goes to alert readers who noticed I didn’t use an Oxford comma in a sentence about the Oxford comma. What delicious irony.
I developed my distaste for the Oxford comma over a lengthy career in journalism. The Associated Press style newspaper editors and reporters follow in producing copy requires the use of commas to separate elements in a series, but not before the conjunction in a simple series. No Oxford comma. Moreover, I believe the art of writing lies in thrift — that there’s a genuine risk of running out of words if you use too many. The same goes with punctuation. Less really is more.
Enthusiasts argue the Oxford comma prevents ambiguity. Consider this sentence: I arranged on my desk framed photos of my two sons, Christopher Walken and Nicholas Cage. Clearly, I didn’t father Christopher Walken or Nicholas Cage.
OK. I’ll admit it. An Oxford comma would clear up confusion. But so would better writing. Consider this simple revision: I arranged on my desk framed photos of Christopher Walken, Nicholas Cage and my two sons.
Ultimately, rigid beliefs all too often separate those who are more alike than different. So when it comes to punctuation, perhaps we’d be better off following more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. I’m OK with that.
Just don’t get me started on semicolons.