July 1, 2011

Please, anything but the serial comma!


That loud, nasal, and somewhat raspy air-suck sound you heard this afternoon was the noise made by the collectively inhaled breaths of nerds all over the planet Earth. The p.r. department of Oxford Universtiy has decreed that the serial comma — also known as the “Oxford comma” — must go.

No longer will you be able to use the comma to corral a series of objects. ‘Kittens, cats, and dogs’ will now be replaced with ‘Kittens, cats and dogs.’ And that’s a crazy, blatant, and scandalous form of homogeneous sentence. Cats and dogs… Just think of it.

In a post in Salon’s grammar section, Mary Elizabeth Williams states:

The serial comma is one of the sanest punctuation usages in the written language. It gives each element of a series its own distinct place in it, instead of lumping the last two together in one hasty breath. Think about it — when you bake, you gather up your eggs, butter, sugar, and flour; you don’t treat sugar and flour as a pair. That would be crazy. That is why, like evangelicals with “John 3:16” bumper stickers on their SUVs, punctuation worshipers cling to CM 6:19 – the Chicago Manual of Style‘s decree that “in a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas.

She also notes:

The last time the nerd community was this cruelly betrayed, George Lucas was sitting at his desk, thinking, “I shall call him Jar Jar.”

The folks in Oxford’s p.r. office would be wise to remember that some wounds never fully heal.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.