At times, drinking far too much can result in some very strange situations, and the best of these times are the ones where you end up having a discussion with high school seniors (or whatever they are called in England) that melds together pop music and grammar.
My birthday, while mostly a strange Jason Morton Experience (see below for a definition), had a few really amazing moments, one of which was just such a time, where I started speaking very randomly to two 18-year-old girls and the conversation progressed into a conversation about the band Vampire Weekend and the Oxford comma and how much we all love the comma. Yes, that is right, 18-year-old girls love the Oxford comma. So, now, all you boys out there that were wondering how to woo such a female, you have this powerful knowledge. Although, to be fair, I am pretty sure those girls were Latin and Russian majors, but still…
But back to the comma. I’m not drunk now, but certainly, I’d never be able to as elegantly explain why the comma is golden as this fellow, Gabe at Motivated Grammar, has done. I don’t know who he is or what he looks like, but I am fairly sure I love him. His post on the Oxford Comma makes me willing to rethink my stance on having babies, just because I at least know that they would be reared with an unfailing sense of duty to the Oxford Comma. And in a world such as ours, I couldn’t ask for more.
First, a bit of background. The Oxford comma is so-called because it is standard in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, and has been for over a hundred years. The Oxford comma is attested in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide, and remains there to this day. The comma also goes by a few other names. Those of a less Anglophilic bent can call it the Harvard comma — although as a loyal Princetonian I would never sully my reputation by doing so. Those who seek to remain neutral in such Anglo-American affairs can call it the serial comma. And those who don’t much care about minor punctuation issues refer to it as “that extra comma” or “that stupid extra comma”, depending on whether or not they use it.
But whatever you call the comma, is it right or wrong? There’re fair arguments on both sides. One might be concerned about limiting ambiguity. Alas, including the Oxford comma can lead to ambiguity, but omitting it can lead to ambiguity as well. Consider (3) and (4):
(3a) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant, and Dolly Parton.
(3b) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant and Dolly Parton.
(4a) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera.
(4b) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera.
It is clear, thanks to the Oxford comma in (3a) that I am not friends with Hugh Grant or Dolly Parton. In (3b), though, they could potentially be my friends, listed as an appositive phrase, and the sentence is thus somewhat ambiguous. Deus ex Oxford comma! On the other hand, in (4a), if you don’t know who Alia Shawkat is, then you may reasonably conclude that the commas are intended to indicate an appositive and that Alia Shawkat is my Congresswoman. (4b) is clearer; since Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera can’t both be my Congresswoman, it’s clear that I was constructing a three-item list. Diabolus ex Oxford comma! In the first case, the Oxford comma dispels ambiguity, but in the second it induces ambiguity. So ambiguity doesn’t push us one way or the other.
He does end his post with some silly prattle about it being okay either way, but I don’t think (a.k.a want to believe) that is how he really feels.
I used to get terribly upset when I would see posters, especially for movies such as Me, You and Dupree (which is so upsetting to me that I cannot believe I just wrote it out there), because I like the nice, easy readability that the ‘extra’ comma adds. Grammar is, as my imaginary friend Gabe writes, made for helping stamp ambiguity out of language. It’s there so that knowledge and information is accessible to everyone. EVERYONE. Not just Oxford kids, not just people who speak a language as a native (trust me, it’s when you start having to read other languages that you start to really appreciate when someone writes in a straightforward manner), and not just for writers either. Did you catch me using my comma? Good.
So here is why I love the Oxford comma: It erases all ambiguity. I can focus less on the structure of the sentence and more easily get to the point. This means I can digest the information quickly, pocket it away in my brain, and move on to the next bit of information. It’s a wonderful thing when you want to read quickly, and I do. There are a lot of books out there in the world and I would like to get through quite a few more before I die.
Now, as Jason Morton (of the Jason Morton Experience) will tell you, journalists rarely use the Oxford comma. He works in magazines and newspapers, so I let it slide for him. I’m not sure why they like to skip it, as the point of a news article is to be easily digestible by the masses, but I’ll try to fake an understanding, just for him.
I would like to say, however, that my love of the Oxford comma has nothing to do with any sort of Anglophilia that was mentioned as a possible source of affection by Gabe. In fact, my first visit to Oxford made me feel a bit upset (really, no, I do not give a flying fuck about the damn Tolkien bust! What do you mean you don’t know who John Donne is?) and my second was mainly a loved up wander through some gardens and a great deal of wine drinking in an old man pub. I could call it the Harvard comma, it would make me feel okay to do that, except then when I argue how great it is with English people, they simply say it is a stupid American creation and the Scots will argue that it is a stupid English creation. They love to argue that, since Edinburgh is the first university to properly teach English. Although mainly they just like to argue. (I just thank god everyday that it is not called the Essex comma or I would want to eradicate it as well…but that’s just the ol’ SNP in me that a certain Mackenzie put in me that I cannot seem to get out of my system, no matter how London tries to squish it out).
Anyway, the rest of the evening was not nearly as much fun as that one moment and I have to say, I do feel terribly happy that I was able to converse with some lovely people (although other than my new friend Niall, I seem to only remember the name Josh, possibly because I have a picture on my phone of us….). Now, where did I put that comma?
*Jason Morton Experience: a situation where a person loses all track of time and logic, due to unsavory dealings, and ends up with a non-linear memory of a night, or day.