Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Oxford Comma

Earlier this summer, a rumor erupted on Twitter that the Oxford comma had been dropped by none other than the Oxford University Press. The story took off and became so big that it had its own Associated Press story. But it wasn't exactly true. The instruction to do away with the comma, which follows the last word in a series, appeared not in the Oxford University Press style guide, but rather the guide issued for the University of Oxford Public Affairs office, and the guide had been online for several years.

The problem people have with the Oxford comma is that it puts a pause where some think one doesn't belong. The idea is that "I went to the market to get triple sec, limes and tequila" is better than "I went to the market to get triple sec, limes, and tequila." I, myself, like the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma can come in really handy when you have a long list. An example of why it's needed was circulated on Twitter, and here's an amended version of its loss gone wrong: "Among those interviewed were Mr. Smith's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall" -- turning Kristofferson and Duvall into the ex-wives of Mr. Smith.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which the Library has as an ebook, chooses the serial comma over the Oxford Comma. The CMS, as it's called, is a great resource for looking up grammar and usage rules. In addition to the complete full text of both the 16th and 15th editions of the Chicago Manual of Style, the site includes:

* tools, such as sample correspondence, proofreaders' marks, and manuscript preparation instructions
* Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide for students, researchers, and writers
* Chicago Style Q&A, entertaining and informative answers to readers' questions

The Library has other databases that will help you find the right word and punctuate correctly.

Note: Vampire Weekend has a fun song titled "Oxford (Comma)" on their 2008 self-titled album.

1 comment:

Aleph said...

Very interesting post. In Spanish, we use the comma like the Oxford comma. In the example cited:
"Among those interviewed were Mr. Smith's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall"
The only way we could make Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall his wives is by using a colon, like this:
"Among those interviewed were Mr. Smith's two ex-wives: Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall"