The university, the angry writers, and the alleged death of the Oxford comma
A new style guide ruling has stunned punctuation purists. Michael Bywater is thrilled
Friday 01 July 2011
Late yesterday morning, the sky fell in, with the Oxford University style guide recommending the abandoning of the "Oxford comma".
Twitter was, of course, ablaze. That's what it's for. "NOOOOOO!" wrote Robyn Bradley. "And so it begins ...", wrote pollyannamedia, inexplicably putting a space before her ellipsis. "Writers feel confused, sad and liberated," according to TargetPR, while Pete_Paguaga said: "It's about time, every journalist clap your hands".
Independent readers will, of course, know what an Oxford comma actually is. But in case you've drifted across from the FT or somewhere, it's the comma before "and" marking the final item in a list. "Soup, trout and venison" most of us tell the waiter. The Oxonian commist says "Soup, trout, and venison". You can hear the comma in his voice.
My personal position, as a man educated in the Puritan fens? We don't have a Cambridge No Comma. The principle is that only deviancy needs to be marked with a special word ("Oxford"). But use it if it avoids ambiguity. The author who writes that he'd like "to thank my children, Deborah and God" might benefit from the Oxford comma. Otherwise: who cares?
Lots of people. How else do you explain the confirmed fact that 97.2 per cent of households in the world own two or more copies of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (who's title gets it's ambiguity from the extraneous comma after "Eats", not the absence of an Oxford comma after "Shoots")?
And how many of you are reaching for your biro's to complain about that "who's" and that "it's", not to mention that "biro's"?
Lots of us care. Writers in particular care a lot. However deluded, we all feel our stuff has a particular rhythm, marked by punctuation, and a curse on the swine who alters it.
Mark Twain was a particular punctuation fiend. He told his publishers that he "knows more about punctuation in two minutes than any damned bastard of a proof-reader can learn in two centuries", and claimed that "in the first place God made idiots". Oscar Wilde once said after a day correcting proofs: "This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again." James Joyce didn't take kindly to people putting an apostrophe into Finnegans Wake, nor Melville to them removing the hyphen in Moby-Dick.
We all have our limits. The greengrocer is undoubtedly wedded to hi's extr'a apo'strophe's, just as the old-style housekeeper. was. unable. to. compose. rude. notes. to. the. Groce'rs. without. her. full. stops.
But here's the odd thing. Shortly after the sky fell, a clarification was issued. The Oxford comma had not been abandoned by its champions, Oxford University Press, but by the University's branding people, in a style (and doomed, I imagine) guide to try to get academics to be consistent.
I don't know whether to be upset that a great university has branding people, or enchanted that they think it worth going into fine points of punctuation. But the Oxford comma lives. That's what counts.
Yet still, correction or no, the debate hums and crackles. A lie is halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on. In a war like this – conforming to Sayre's Law, which says that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low – truth might as well take its boots off again and go back to bed. We have our casus belli. We have truth, justice and decency on our side. The other side have truth, justice, and decency on theirs. No surrender.
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